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Is water scarcity a threat to the future of ag-supported communities in the Nebraska Panhandle?

October 5, 2016

There’s a lot of chatter around here lately about the effect Cabela’s ownership change will have on employment at the company’s world headquarters in Sidney, since that one company directly supports a quarter of the jobs there, and indirectly supports many more. I have friends who are potentially affected by this tremor in Sidney’s economy, and I’ve heard a fear expressed that a decline in the local economy could reduce home values and impact people who are relying on the value of their homes as a financial security net in their older years.

I’m not likely to be personally affected by Cabela’s business operations, so I’m not worried about it from a personal finance point of view.

But there’s something else going on in the world that does have the potential to affect the security of my investment as a homeowner in Scotts Bluff County.

That something will be addressed at the Midwest Theater this Friday night, October 7, at 7:30 p.m., with a documentary film and panel discussion. The event is free. I’m planning to attend, and if you’re interested in the long-term health of our community, I think you should, too.

The topic of the film and discussion is water and agriculture.

The gist of my worry is this:

  1. The communities in Scotts Bluff County are highly dependent on agriculture to support the base of our economy.
  2. A large portion of our agriculture is dependent upon irrigation from surface water sources, and there is a moratorium on drilling for new high-capacity groundwater sources because of limited supply. (See UNL’s Agriculture in the Nebraska Panhandle for a summary.)
  3. According to UNL analysis of climate projections, within our lifetime, we are potentially looking at the following conditions in the Nebraska Panhandle (See Understanding and Assessing Climate Change: Implications for Nebraska for more information):

Increase in the frequency and intensity of certain extreme weather and climate events …, particularly droughts and heat waves. … a small increase in heavy precipitation events (p. 33). (Less rain, and when rain does come, there will be increased potential for flooding.)

Large projected reduction in snowpack in the central and northern Rocky Mountains (p. 32). (Less water available for surface irrigation.)

Typical summer temperatures by mid-century (2041-2070) equivalent to those experienced during the 2012 drought and heat wave (p. 31). (Who remembers the summer of 2012? Multiple record high temperatures set. Multiple damaging hailstorms. Numerous wildfires. Brownouts due to the high electricity demand. Church groups praying for rain. Dust storms. Shortage of feed for livestock.)

Was it dumb of me to purchase a home in Scottsbluff, given the stressors predicted to hit our ag-based economy in the future? Will we continue on a business-as-usual course as our weather patterns change, or will we take action to set ourselves up to be more resilient to change?

Friday’s film at the Midwest Theater is Thirsty Land.

Here’s a quote from the film trailer that illustrates how this film is linked to my concerns:

This entire valley, not just the farms, but the entire valley – the McDonald’s, the Safeway, the downtown shops, they’ll all close up when this place dries up. My employees go down the road because there’s nothing to do here.

no-water-no-jobs

Photo credit: Thirsty Land film

Thirsty Land was produced by Conrad Weaver, who also produced The Great American Wheat Harvest, which was a very well-received film when it screened here.

Thirsty Land was produced with support from the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute and UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources as well as several irrigation companies and agriculture-based associations. This screening event is supported by the Panhandle Research and Extension Center, the North Platte Natural Resources District, and the Nebraska Conversation Education Fund. Yes, the film focuses on the water crisis in California, but the substantial support for this project from Nebraska sources tells me that this is an important topic for our state. This is not political propaganda. This is a real challenge we will be facing.

The panelists for the post-film discussion include, in addition to the filmmaker, well-respected members of the community whose lives and work are entwined in agriculture: John Berge, NPNRD General Manager; Pete Lapaseotes, NPNRD board member and irrigator, cattle feeder, and agribusiness owner; Owen Palm, President and CEO of 21st Century Holdings; and Dennis Strauch, General Manager of Pathfinder Irrigation District. Palm and Strauch are also members of the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission, representing agribusiness interests and irrigation districts, respectively.

My one disappointment is that this film discussion is being marketed in the Star-Herald primarily to agricultural interests rather than to the community at large (though people on the Midwest Theater and Nebraska Conservation Education Fund mailing lists should also get information about the screening). The two mentions of the film have both been in the Farm & Ranch section, in a general press release, and in a column by PREC director Jack Whittier.

My hope is that a broad cross-section of our community will attend this event and start conversations that put Scotts Bluff County on a path to greater resilience in the face of changing weather patterns.

I’ll be there, because I want to be part of the solution. I want to make sure that my adopted home not only survives but thrives in the future.

Where will you be this Friday night?

UPDATE: I wanted to share some excellent information sent to me by Dave Ostdiek, the communications contact over at PREC (who is also on the board of the North Platte NRD).

  • This article examines the value that irrigation water adds to agricultural land in Nebraska.
  • Here’s another article on how irrigation contributes to agricultural land value. It’s the only paper of those listed here in which I found a mention of climate change.
  • This UNL publication gives a summary of irrigation in Nebraska. Of interest is the fact that, in much of Scotts Bluff County, the water resources were listed as “over-appropriated.” (Side note: the publication, as well as this one, show that the majority of western Nebraska is underlain by the Ogallala aquifer, yet I’ve heard some folks arguing that Scotts Bluff County is not, in fact hydrologically connected to that famed underground body of water. I’m confused.)
  • Here’s a thought-provoking study commissioned by the Nebraska Farm Bureau in the wake of the 2012 drought. A quote from that study highlighting the relevance of a film about California’s drought to Nebraska (2008 data):

Nebraska has the highest level of acreage under irrigation for all states [8.4 million acres]. The next closest state is California, where 7.3 million acres are under irrigation.

According to this study, because of farmers’ ability to irrigate, the Nebraska economy has an additional 30,000 jobs and $11 billion in economic output (a total of direct, indirect, and induced impacts).

Copyright 2016 by Katie Bradshaw

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2016 3:50 pm

    I’ll be there Katie!

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