Nebraska's farmers pushed to brink

The state is a leader in combating drought, but it's being tested by the current dry spell.

It's a familiar cycle: Drought hits, cities ration water, and farmers watch as their crops shrivel. Everyone waits for the rains to come again.

During the past few years, however, a handful of states have tried to break that cycle of helplessness. They've issued drought warnings, suggested that farmers plant drought-resistant crops, and offered tips about how to keep fields as moist as possible.

Now, these measures are getting their sternest test. Nebraska, one of the leaders in drought mitigation, is locked in one of its worst dry spells in decades.

Some of those who heeded the warnings have had a measure of success in forestalling nature's dry grip. Yet many Nebraska communities and farmers ignored the warnings, and crops are now faltering and drinking wells running dry.

For proponents of drought-mitigation efforts, it's proof that good planning is the only way to make up for a lack of rain. But for others, the drought has been so severe that they wonder whether any measures could have made a difference.

Parched fields

Dennis Kostal is one farmer who listened to many of the suggestions.

The grain and livestock farmer reduced his seeding rate, cut his corn crop in half, and planted more drought-resistant sorghum instead. He also doubled the number of acres that he didn't till - agronomists say tilling can remove 1/2 to 1 inch of soil moisture.

But his soybean fields here in the southeast part of the state have cracks so deep they accommodate his 18-inch machete. Only the handle sticks out. "See that dirt there?" asks Mr. Kostal. "There's not a bit of moisture."

For a year, southeast Nebraska had no substantial rain. Then in early July, a gully washer temporarily saved the crop. Now, the fields are drying out again.

Although some 30 states have instituted drought-response plans, only Nebraska, New Mexico, and Utah have statewide plans with a proactive slant. Texas is instituting another plan. Georgia and other states are considering it.

Nebraska's response

Here in Nebraska, the state's drought task force started meeting monthly last October as the southeast part of the state grew drier. A branch of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the state put out four instructional videos for farmers and ranchers on ways to conserve water. And the National Drought Mitigation Center got the word out early - before farmers had planted their crops - that drought was likely to continue. "It's much more cost effective to address these issues up front rather than addressing them after the fact," says Don Wilhite, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center, a federally funded research and policy group at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. "Every dollar you invest in mitigation will save you five times what the cost of a drought would be."

Some farmers listened. Like Kostal, Ron Holst reduced his seeding rates. The grain and dairy producer outside Odell also did not till any of his fields, instead planting new seeds in among the stubble of last year's crop.

But these two farmers were in the minority. Most ignored the warnings.

"Early in the year, people were still pretty optimistic that the spring rains were going to come and ... didn't necessarily make a lot of changes," says De Lynn Hay, program leader for USDA's cooperative extension in the state.

For towns, Nebraska developed a list of communities whose water supplies face risk from drought. The list is to encourage cities and towns to take action, says Jack Daniel, section administrator for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services in Lincoln.

Ultimately, however, communities have the right to make their own decisions.

In Louisville, Neb., for instance, one of two public wells went dry earlier this year.

"There's a terrible drought here in Cass County," says Paul McManis, the city's mayor and an antique dealer. The Platte River "is too thick to drink and too thin to plow."

As a result, the city has banned lawn watering and car washing. It has drilled four new wells in search of water - and found none. Now, it faces a potential bill of nearly $1 million to drill in the next county and pipe the water.

Limitations

While the drought has focused attention on the successes of Nebraska's mitigation effort - the state has received calls from overseas about the project - it has also revealed limitations. So little rain has fallen in southwest Nebraska that perhaps no amount of mitigation could have saved the region's dryland corn crop.

"I'm not sure there's much of anything that really helps a lot," says Tom Dill, a USDA extension educator based in Imperial. Some farmers with nonirrigated corn might still get half a crop if rain comes immediately. But "most of them will get nothing."

Farmers with irrigated corn, edible beans, and potatoes face better crop prospects, but they have had to draw heavily on shrinking water reserves. And thanks to high fuel costs and low crop prices, diesel-powered irrigation is cutting into their profits. "There's very little of a cushion there," Mr. Dill says.

Even here in southeast Nebraska, farmers say their mitigation efforts can only delay the effects of dryness. If rains don't come in the next week, they too will see crops reduced by up to half or maybe more.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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