CNPPID ensures farmers get irrigation water
Aug. 18, 2018
BERTRAND, Neb. (AP) — David Pierce has patrolled farm country north of Bertrand for 33 years, keeping his eyes on Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District's E65 Canal and related irrigation structures.
He knows every field and 100-plus irrigation turnout points serving approximately 7,000 crop acres. He calls daily up to 40 landowners, tenants or hired hands during irrigation season to ask if they need water delivered or shut off.
While driving along the canal and lateral ditches, he can tell at a glance if water is running high, low or just right to meet that day's irrigation needs and if there are places in need of repairs or weed treatments.
He knows the best times and places to see wildlife and once made an amateur photographer's day by showing her a ditch where a burrowing owl was hanging out.
"You go almost with blinders on because you see all the everyday wildflowers, wild turkeys, deer and take it for granted when you drive 100 to 150 miles a day and around 28,000 miles a year," Pierce said.
The Kearney Hub reports that he is one of 16 CNPPID patrolmen, more formally called irrigation service specialists, who spend each irrigation season day contacting customers irrigating 108,000 acres — mostly in Gosper, Phelps and Kearney counties.
Irrigation Division Manager Dave Ford, who began his CNPPID career in 1987 as a patrolman also working out of the Bertrand office, joked that he used to call himself a "ditch jockey."
He moved to the CNPPID headquarters in Holdrege in the early 1990s to work on a project to identify all properties within the irrigation service area with water rights and then determine if the rights were being used or could be moved to other fields.
"It was the first time the district actually mapped the water allocations on each tract of land," Ford said. "... You'd think that was a given, but it wasn't always the case."
Ford said a patrolman's job description in the 1970s and '80s included keeping a list of irrigated acres and writing water delivery schedules. The goal was to have uniform water deliveries to all fields.
Prepping canals in the spring involved burning, managing weeds and making repairs or improvements to canals and laterals.
"Everything from the canal right up to the farm field is our responsibility," Ford said.
Irrigation customers were contacted daily about their water needs, a delivery schedule was made and the patrolman started what Ford called "a communication chain" leading to CNPPID project operators who made sure adequate water was at each canal's headgates and the necessary gates were opened or closed.
When Ford and Pierce were new patrolmen, all gates were adjusted manually.
They also checked fields to confirm that farmers who ordered water were taking water.
That general process hasn't changed, but patrolmen's information and communication tools now include district-issued cellphones and laptops that turn pickup cabs into rolling offices.
"Cellphones have been a really good asset in reaching the farmers," Pierce said. "A lot of them have quite a few acres and you're not going to see them every day."
"I had to go out and find those guys (farmers) and talk to them," Ford said about his patrolman years without cellphones.
Pierce, who is the main patrolman for the E65 Canal, still keeps written daily logs in a thick three-ring binder, but the information also is downloaded to a computer database for cellphone or laptop access.
He said farmers use similar technologies to monitor information from water meters, soil moisture probes and weather stations that helps them decide when and how much to irrigate.
Water conservation is part of today's economic decisions, Pierce said, because of high energy costs and low market prices.
He said that in the early 1990s, irrigators used 80 percent to 100 percent of their annual water allocations. That has dropped to 40 percent to 60 percent, especially in wetter years like 2018.
Ford said farmers with pivot systems often use less than 9 inches of water per acre in a growing season. The district average in 2017 was 7.2 inches per acre.
Customers pay $34.61 for the 9-inch base delivery and $1.21 more this year for each additional inch per acre.
"The emphasis is on conservation," Ford said. "We want them to have water if they need it because that's why we're here. We don't want them to use it just because we have it."
Interest in a sustainable water supply is a factor.
Ford said extremely dry years early this century required smaller allocations and a focus on conservation. Central water users watched Lake McConaughy, where CNPPID irrigation water is stored, drop to a record low 347,700 acre-feet, or 20 percent of its 1.7 million a-f capacity, in September 2004.
The reservoir recovered and now holds 1.44 million a-f or 82.7 percent of capacity, but the conservation focus remains. "When we went back to regular deliveries, people wondered how they could use all that water," Ford said.
Today's patrolmen still operate some water delivery equipment by hand, but most of that is done remotely from the Gothenburg Control Center. They do maintenance in their areas during irrigation season and work on bigger projects such as canal cleaning and pipeline installation in the offseason.
Ford said job applicants now are asked about skills such as operating excavation equipment. It's a plus if their backgrounds indicate some understanding of farming and the CNPPID irrigation project.
Most of all, patrolmen need to demonstrate the people skills necessary to work with farmers, he said.
"I knew nothing about farming or irrigation practices," Pierce said about his 1985 job interview. "The supervisor who hired me (Walt Schnoor) wanted someone he could train."
Pierce lived in places around the world while growing up because his dad was in the U.S. Air Force and learned people skills while being the new kid every time his family moved.
He said the best parts of his job are working with farmers and knowing that every day will be different.
Both men like the challenge of water scheduling.
"I enjoy running the water. It's exciting to me to see if you can take multiple deliveries — 40 or 50 every day — and make it work together," Pierce said.
"How do you put an irrigation schedule together? Well, it's math, but a new application of math," Ford said. " ... I'm trying to balance the water, make one delivery similar to the other to keep that lateral level constant."
When asked about unusual activities for patrolmen, Pierce said, "We've rescued dogs from behind gates. We've rescued deer out of the canals. We've had vehicles that went into the canals.
"Unfortunately, we've also had drownings in the canals."
Information from: Kearney Hub, http://www.kearneyhub.com/