What is a LEMA?
In December, CAWA and the Republican River Water Conservation District hosted a meeting in Burlington to discuss groundwater conservation. Part of the workshop included a group of irrigators from Sheridan County, Kansas, who have been a part of a LEMA: Local Enhanced Management Area. Declining groundwater levels, incomes, and population in the area led farmers to convene a series of meetings with their local Groundwater Management District (entities in Kansas) that are granted the authority to initiate a public hearing process to consider a specific conservation plan to meet local goals.
In 2012, the farmers and Groundwater Management District initiated the LEMA, which restricted irrigators to 55 inches of water over 5 years per eligible acre in the program. These 55 inches acted as an account and farmers could carry over inches from one year to the next or take more in one year than another. These accounts also allowed irrigators to transfer water between one another and provided umbrella accounts that covered multiple wells by one irrigator.
Prior to the LEMA, the average annual amount of water pumpedin the district from 2008-2012 was 27,800 acre-feet. During the LEMA (2012-2017) that number dropped to 18,455 acre-feet annualy. The LEMA achieved its goal of 20% regional reduction compared to the previous 5 years and was recently approved for 2018-2022. A district-wide LEMA is currently being proposed in the county that would encompass more farmers but will have slightly different rules.
Roch Meier has been irrigating in Sheridan County for over 50 years. He has seen farming change from flood irrigation to sprinklers and have continued to change his farming practices in the area. At the workshop in Burlington, Roch kept on mentioning how they keep “trash” all over the place. In years past, they used to get rid of all the “trash” but now they leave it around everywhere. By trash, he means crop residue, which are the materials left in an agricultural field after the crop has been harvested. These residues include stalks, stubble, leaves, and seed pods. Roch mentioned how he hasn’t even touched one of his fields with machinery in 15 years. He doesn’t do any fall work after harvest, except he might strip-till some seasons. After harvest, they do put about 80-100 cows on the corn stalks for 20 days. Every three to five years they put manure on the fields after the ground freezes over to not compact the soils.
The past few years, the biggest change Roch has made is that he doesn’t disk or cultivate at all. If there is a wet spring, planting in all that crop residue can be difficult, but he says he’s been incredibly productive with these management practices. He drills soybeans on 10” centers and get 90 plus bushel beans. His corn yields the past few years have been 22-32 bushels per inch per acre.
Brett Oelke also grew up and farms in Sheridan County, Kansas. Growing up, they did ridge till and would run the tractor seven times over their fields during the season. Now, they spray, plant, and harvest. That’s it. Brett uses no-till on their soybeans and wheat, and strip-till on the corn fields. Brett disturbs the soil much less and tries to keep as much residue on his fields as possible. Again, this can making planting difficult if there is a wet spring and Brett pointed that out. They also have soil moisture probes on every field. They use them less for irrigation timing and more as a gauge to tell them when to start sprinklers again after a rain event. This past year he didn't ahve to turn on one of his sprinklers for 27 days after a 1 inch rain because water stayed in the soil profile that long.
Brett has land inside and outside of the LEMA and he noticed that the gains in yield on the fields with full irrigation and inputs were pretty marginal compared to the fields inside the LEMA. More importantly, his LEMA properties made more income than his properties outside of the LEMA.
Market Study of the LEMA
Dr. Bill Golden of Kansas State University has been monitoring the economic impact of the LEMA. So far, “the producer-supplied data suggests that producers within the LEMA boundary have been able to reduce groundwater use with minimal impact on cash flow.”
You can read the interim report here.
You can see a video of Dr. Golden’s presentation here.