In west central Minnesota, ‘I thought water was limitless’

The sandy, heavily irrigated soils of the west central Minnesota area known as the Bonanza Valley lie in one of three places where the state is trying a new approach to managing groundwater. As part of Ground Level’s look at the state’s groundwater challenge, freelance reporter Dan Haugen explores in a story today the area’s increasing demand for water and what the potential is for demanding too much.

Here’s a post from Haugen looking at one farmer’s irrigation cost.

For farmer Jim Anderson, water may be almost free, but getting it to his fields isn’t cheap.

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Anderson’s family owns a 5,500-acre farm west of Brooten in central Minnesota’s Bonanza Valley. Like many other farmers in the area, he depends on irrigation to produce a healthy crop year after year.

Yet Anderson has real reasons to want to conserve water, and anyone who doesn’t believe him can take a look at his electricity bill.

“I think last year, in a dry year, we probably spent maybe $175,000 on electrical energy,” Anderson said.

That’s the tab for running dozens of electric pumps throughout the hot, dry months of late summer, when electricity demand and prices peak in most of Minnesota.

“If you can figure out how to save even 10 or 20 percent by scheduling it and not watering when you don’t have to, it’s a huge savings,” Anderson said.

Anderson uses what’s known as the checkbook method. By tracking variables such as heat, precipitation and plant size in a spreadsheet, he can get a daily estimate of how much moisture is in the soil. When it runs low, he “balances the checkbook” by irrigating.

Last year, he and his oldest son experimented with a handful of soil moisture probes, devices that are inserted into the ground and remotely send soil moisture reports back to a database. They’re not common yet, but Anderson predicts they will be someday.

One factor driving the increase in irrigation in recent years is the record or near-record high corn prices, which have improved farmers’ margins and given them extra money to invest in irrigation equipment.

Anderson estimates that a typical center pivot irrigator today costs around $75,000. Then you need a well, which can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000, depending on depth. A pump will cost another $15,000 to $20,000, he said, and then add another $15 per foot for pipe between the well and pivot. There’s also a fee to the power company for hooking up the new equipment. It can easily add up to $1,500 to $2,000 per acre, Anderson said, and more for oddly shaped sections.

Overwatering not only costs money, but it also can lead to unhealthy crops. When young crops get too much water, they don’t develop deep roots and become more vulnerable to drought, and many fungal diseases are related to excessive moisture, Anderson said.

Anderson says his relationship with water has changed.

“At one point I thought water was limitless,” Anderson said, but because of “the experience over the last 10 to 15 years, I think we as farmers, and most of us, understand that we have to be conscious of what we’re doing so that we have water down the road.”