Floodwater from the Missouri River covers an area of Percival, Iowa, near the Iowa-Nebraska border. Photo by Robert Ray
The Impact of Climate Change on Nebraska's Water: Too Much and Too Little
The state already has taken steps to protect its precious resource
By: Celeste Kenworthy
Fifty-five years ago, Jim Goeke hated the state of Nebraska.
While the veteran hydrogeologist was on a football scholarship at Wisconsin in the mid-60s, his team lost 30-0 to Nebraska one year and 33-0 the next. Those stinging defeats created a lasting bitterness.
Later, after attending Colorado State University to earn his master’s degree in hydrogeology, Goeke was presented with two job offers: Mississippi or Nebraska. He choked back his disgust and took a conservation and survey job at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which he kept for 41 years.
Goeke, now retired, owns land in the Sandhills of Nebraska, a region he once considered desolate. He says he and his wife have come to cherish Nebraska and its rich groundwater resources.
“Nebraska is the envy of probably the entire country because of our groundwater resources,” Goeke said, adding that monitoring groundwater resources is what the Conservation and Survey Division has done for 120 years.
While at UNL for four decades, Goeke helped identify Nebraska’s groundwater resources through groundwater test wells. Since 1930, the Conservation and Survey Division drilled almost 6,000 wells across the state to gain a wealth of information, including how far down it is to water.
Climate change may soon alter the water levels in those wells. Experts who predict rising temperatures in Nebraska also foresee the impacts of a hotter climate: greater rainfall variability, an increase in high temperature stress days and a decrease in soil moisture content. This will lead to an increase in extreme events, including drought and heavy precipitation.
By the end of the century, Nebraska is projected to see:
- An increase in average temperatures up to 9 degrees if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase
- An increase of 13 to 16 more days over 100 degrees. Western Nebraska could see up to 37 more days over 100 degrees.
- A 5% to 10% decrease in soil moisture if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase
In the heaviest 1% of all downpours, the Northern Midwest saw a 29% increase in the amount of rain from 1958 to 2016, and that trend is expected to continue. Nebraska has already experienced a 1.6 degree rise in temperature since 1895.
Most of Nebraska’s groundwater is found in the High Plains Aquifer, a massive region of water-saturated rock and sediment that underlies eight states. Sixty-six percent of the aquifer is under Nebraska, which includes about 2.15 billion acre-feet of groundwater or about 700 trillion gallons. That’s more than 1.5 times the amount of water in Lake Ontario.
This groundwater is important to Nebraska because those multi-billion acre-feet of water supply the multi-billion-dollar agricultural industry, which in turn supplies the world with corn, soybeans and beef. Additionally, 85% of Nebraskans get their drinking water from the ground, according to the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy.
“Oftentimes, you hear the Good Life in Nebraska. Good Life in Nebraska is based, I think, primarily on groundwater resources we have in Nebraska,” Goeke said.
Those groundwater resources are not guaranteed, however.
In 2012, Nebraska experienced its hottest and driest year on record.
Despite farmers’ efforts to save their crops by pumping more groundwater for irrigation, some lost their entire season and had to get out of the farming business. Across most of the state, more groundwater was being pumped out than was being replenished to the aquifer, leading to declines, according to Goeke.
But the declines were not severe because the 2012 drought was a one-year drought, a “blip on the radar,” Goeke said.
Robert Ray, an on-camera reporter for The Weather Channel and a 1997 UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communications graduate, witnessed the devastation created by the 2012 drought. He described the soil drying up and crops withering.
“Soybeans took a huge hit,” Ray said. “They kind of looked like tumbleweeds as they dried up, just sort of came out of their roots. The wind just took them, literally.”
Climate change may flip the conditions experienced during the 2012 drought from a blip to the new normal. By the middle of the century, projected increases in the number of high temperature stress days would mean typical summer temperatures similar to the summer of 2012. In Lincoln in July of 2012, the average temperature was 97 degrees, 8 degrees above normal.
Ray said there is no doubt that things are changing because of climate change but also wishes there was more information.
“My big thing with it is I do wish that we had more historical data. Of course, that’s not possible because people just weren’t taking data 200 years ago,” he said.
As climate change leads to warmer temperatures, crops will need more water, said Crystal Powers, a research and extension communication specialist at the Nebraska Water Center.
Powers said there are already steep groundwater declines occurring in southwestern Nebraska, similar to the extreme declines in other states that draw from the High Plains Aquifer, like Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. But that’s even before factoring in future climate change.
“It’ll be even more of a concern of how do we keep a long-term sustainable supply of groundwater when we will need to use more water?” Powers said.
Powers cited groundwater scarcity as the biggest concern for the western part of Nebraska, where the climate is already drier.
“In Nebraska, we kind of live in the land of extremes,” she said.
The Sandhills of north-central Nebraska are experiencing a different problem: too much groundwater.
The middle Niobrara River basin is experiencing significant increases in groundwater levels with some serious consequences, said Mike Murphy, manager of the Middle Niobrara Natural Resources District. Water has come up to cover private land and even some roads. One landowner told Murphy that a valley on his property south of Valentine is flooded.
“He figures it’s about 20 feet deep right now. And he’s got trees buried, and he’s worried about it getting into his house,” Murphy said.
The water level in one Cherry County well rose 19.59 feet in the past 10 years. Managers are used to seeing changes in the inches from year to year, Murphy said. In some wells last year, the water level was above the surface.
“We got irrigation wells that literally water (was) running out of them when the guys went to sample,” Murphy said.
Overall, groundwater in Nebraska rose an average of 1.3 feet from spring 2018 to spring 2019, according to the 2019 Groundwater-Level Monitoring Report. During the same time period, 93% of reporting stations saw above average annual precipitation. The 2019 data is reflective of long-term rises and long-term declines in areas of Nebraska.
The eastern part of the state has less to be concerned about in terms of quantity of groundwater but plenty to be concerned with in terms of groundwater quality.
In spring 2019, floods tore through roads, farms and homes across Nebraska, causing more than $1 billion in damage. The flooding also caused an Omaha wastewater treatment plant to stop operations. During that time, 65 million gallons of untreated sewage was dumped daily into the Missouri River.
One of Nebraska’s biggest groundwater quality problems is nitrate contamination, which could be exacerbated by climate change, according to Tiffany Messer, Ph.D., a UNL professor and water quality engineer.
Messer said the 2019 flooding was “definitely a climate impact” and when flooding like that happens, it can wash contaminants like nitrogen out of the soil and into the water cycle.
Too much nitrogen in drinking water can harm young infants and livestock, starving the body of oxygen and causing “blue baby syndrome,” according to the United States Geological Survey. High nitrate levels in drinking water are also linked to certain cancers.
“There’s a potential we could actually be speeding up this kind of surge of nitrogen into the system,” Messer said.
It may seem as though water quality would be less of a problem during drought years, but Messer said that is not necessarily the case.
“When we have a drought, we typically see what looks like a low year of surface water contamination,” Messer said. When it starts to rain the following year, however, the contamination may be double the usual amount.
That large influx of contaminants can negatively impact species that require specific environmental conditions to survive and wouldn’t normally be affected by the regular addition of contaminants in a non-drought year, Messer said.
Farmers in Nebraska have long been concerned with issues facing groundwater, whether quantity or quality.
Brad Makovicka, 33, farms 800 acres of land in York, Nebraska, with his father, Ron Makovicka. They have implemented groundwater conservation practices for the water they draw from the High Plains Aquifer.
“Everyone’s starting to make rules as to what you got to use,” Brad said. “I think we were kind of ahead of the curve and starting to conserve water.”
One method they use to conserve groundwater is soil-moisture sensors that can tell the Makovickas when to water, allowing them to use their supply more efficiently.
Brad said this allows them to make smarter choices.
“When you see other people irrigating when we know our soil is quite full, I question if they see the same thing, or if they just water just to water,” he said.
He believes climate change will impact their farm.
“It’s very real,” he said. “We need to be a lot more aware of what’s going on with that, as it’s going to affect us in more ways than one.”
Like the Makovickas, Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts are looking out for Nebraska’s groundwater.
Established in 1972, the NRDs were charged with conserving and protecting Nebraska’s natural resources, including groundwater. They have elected boards and are mainly funded by property taxes.
The NRDs are prepared to deal with the effects of climate change, even if they don’t call it by that name.
“We’ve been dealing with climate change with the managing of groundwater since the ’70s. Just never call it climate change. We call it periods of drought, periods of extensive moisture, and flood events,” said Dean Edson, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts.
Each NRD has a groundwater management plan and is ready to react to these extreme events. Changes can be implemented quickly in the monthly meetings the local NRDs are required to have.
“It’s probably the quickest response you’re ever going to get if there is an issue dealing with the climate change,” Edson said.
As other states face major groundwater declines, they have turned to Nebraska’s NRD model for guidance. Edson doesn’t find this surprising.
“We’re so far ahead of everybody else. We’re poised in a situation where we can react to whatever changes may come,” Edson said.
Goeke, the retired hydrogeologist, agrees.
“When we created the Natural Resources Districts and charged them with taking care of groundwater, that was a great idea,” Goeke said. “I think it’s gonna guarantee a future in Nebraska.”