TURTLE LAKE, N.D. -- The federal promise of irrigation from the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District in North Dakota is finally coming true for farmers, promising economic activity.
"There's a pile of water in this canal," says Steve Knorr, 37, the managing partner for K&T Farms, which has developed 4,000 acres of irrigated crops -- mostly corn and edible beans -- off the McClusky Canal near Turtle Lake, N.D.
K&T's project is a sort of incubator project for what could be several similar-scale irrigation operations along the canal. Knorr's first crop was 600 acres in 2009. Under K&T Farms ownership, it grew to 2,200 acres in 2011, 2,800 acres in 2012, and now a total of about 4,000 acres in 2013, where he expects it to stay.
Besides being historic, the "Mile Marker 7.5 Irrigation Project" is high-tech. It can be controlled through smartphones and web apps, and three people run the system through the irrigation season.
The initial McClusky Canal carries Missouri River water and is 73.6 miles long, built from 1969 to 1976 -- the year Knorr was born.
The canal was designed to carry up to 2,000 cubic feet per second with a capacity of irrigating up to 250,000 acres, in addition to bringing water for rural areas and municipal supplies farther east. Current uses add up to 100 cubic feet per second, says Kip Kovar, the district engineer at the diversion headquarters in Carrington. The canal is about 100 feet wide in a slope to a 25-foot-wide bottom, holding water at a 15-foot depth.
McClusky Canal is part of a system of compensation for Missouri River flood control main stem dams that were built from the late 1940s into the mid-1960s, Kovar says. The initial intent was 1.2 million acres of irrigation in the state, but that was dropped to 500,000 acres in the 1960s -- roughly the amount of land lost when the Garrison Dam went up, creating Lake Sakakawea.
Former U.S. Sen. Mark Andrews, R-N.D., says irrigation originally was to have come off the Sheyenne and James rivers. In the early 1960s, Congress approved a project to move water to the east -- in part to recharge Devils Lake and in part to recharge the Sheyenne and James rivers, and ultimately the Red River.
The canals were built, but a 66-inch pipeline from the McClusky Canal to Lake Ashtabula has not been built, and there is no timetable for doing that. Meanwhile, through environmental and political opposition, the irrigation scope in the canal was cut to 23,700 acres -- both through the Garrison Diversion Reformulation Act of 1986 and the Dakota Water Resources Act of 2000.
The Bureau of Reclamation identified 13,700 acres near Turtle Lake and another 10,000 "canal-side" acres anywhere suitable along the canal, Kovar says. Another 28,000 acres are undesignated somewhere in the Missouri River Basin, he says.
Initially, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would offer a one-year water service contract. The Knorrs hired Joe Cichy, a Bismarck, N.D., attorney who formerly was with the North Dakota Water Commission, and got a five-year water service contract. The Knorrs developed six initial quarters close to the canal, using a smaller pump station they'd financed themselves, and started irrigating in 2009.
After the first year, the Garrison Diversion developed into the Mile Marker 7.5 project, which refers to the distance from the head gate in Garrison. Landowners formed the Turtle Lake Irrigation District -- a legal governmental entity that can sell bonds and build central pumping. After several public meetings, construction started in the fall and winter of 2010, developing phases I, II and III in areas north of the canal. Phase I includes 3,500 acres and Phases II and III will include another 3,500.
Those in the neighborhoods that were interested in having water diverted or pumped to their property in Phase I had to put $5 per acre down to start the engineering work. Engineers needed at least 2,500 acres of land for the project. They are now "maxed out" in Phase I at about 4,000 acres, Steve says.
In 2010, they formed K&T Farms to develop a larger project -- Phase I of a three-phase plan. Only K&T Farms and one other member in the community signed up. The project has been delivering water since July 2011.
K&T stands for Knorr and Topp families. Steve and his uncle, Mark Knorr, are partners in the farm, which is in association with Steve's father, Bob. The Topps are Jason and Justin Topp, both of Grace City, who farm in conjunction with their father, Jeff, of Grace City. "It's a collaboration of the families," Steve says. When all of the landlord families are added in, there are a dozen involved.
Most of the land is from Conservation Reserve Program acres, and is under long-term leases for up to 10 years.
The project starts at the first lift, which includes two, 36-inch lines that go into the canal. Each line has a "T-screen" inlet in the side wall of the canal, in a structure called a wet well. The pumps for the vertical turbines go down about 20 to 30 feet into the well. Five, 250-horsepower turbines lift the water from the wet well and energize the line. Electricity is available at a cheaper rate from the hydro dams.
Knorr says the State Water Commission paid half the cost of the central supply works. The project was $3.6 million, so the farmers and the state each came up with roughly $1.8 million. Without the SWC, the project would not be considered feasible, as costs would be too high to be profitable, Garrison Diversion officials say. But developing the irrigation could create hundreds of new jobs and millions in economic activity in an area of the state that could use them.
The central station then sends the water out in two, 24-inch lines and one 18-inch line. Together, these mains deliver 18,000 gallons of water per minute -- arteries will go to irrigation pivots to the north.
The northernmost fields are about seven miles away, along McLean County Highway 8. Water is pumped to this station in two, 24-inch lines. The water is repressurized to feed the northern pivots in one 24-inch and one 18-inch line. This electricity comes from McLean Electric Cooperative and is not subsidized.
Knorr says just the pivot on a quarter of land is $70,000 to $80,000 in above-ground costs. Other development costs are around $2,000 an acre, for wires, pipe and pivots.
K&T Farms is unusual because it adds groundwater wells into the system. The canal water is designed to handle about 3,000 acres, and the well water adds another 1,000 acres, for the 4,000-acre total. This well pumps from the Lake Nettie Aquifer, bringing groundwater from 190 feet down.
The system is made up of 15 miles of main and lateral pipes. The line is maintained, or "energized" at 55 to 65 pounds per square inch. Knorr describes it as similar to a rural water project -- the subscriber turns the water on, and it's there.
"The pump station reacts when a pivot is turned on," he says. "As a pivot valve opens, the station ramps up and the variable frequency drive turns on another turbine, with more power, more pressure, to maintain the pressure at all times."
Safety functions turn off the system in the case of a line break. "We can open that valve manually, or by the smartphone," Knorr says. The system is available through Watertronics, a division of Lindsay, which also produces Zimmatic pivots. "No one has to be hired to move pipes or open and close gates."
Knorr determines irrigation needs by going to the field and checking with hand-operated probes, as well as crop stage charts. Someday, Knorr expects soil water profiles will be monitored through automated tensiometers.
No irrigation newbie
The Knorrs are some of the more experienced irrigators in North Dakota.
Steve, 37, was working on irrigated vegetable trials before he graduated high school in 1995. He went to North Dakota State University, where he played defensive tackle in Division II football. He graduated in 2000 and went home to farm.
His father, Bob, was a leader in the then-North Dakota Wheat Growers Association -- precursor to the North Dakota Grain Growers Association. His older brother, Rob, migrated to Arizona to farm there under irrigation. In the late 1980s, Bob Knorr of Sawyer, N.D., was one of the original partners in KIP Farms in Karlsruhe, in McHenry County.
The KIP partnership (named for Karlsruhe Irrigation Project) started raising irrigated process potatoes in relatively tight rotation. It was part of North Dakota's first irrigated potato boom when processed potatoes moved out of the Red River Valley, after the drought of 1988 and 1989.
Steve Knorr became one of the younger KIP Farms partners. He tried growing onions involved in various high-value crop and vegetable ventures in the region. KIP Farms had been raising process potatoes both for Cavendish Farms in Jamestown, N.D., and Simplot in Grand Forks, N.D. The KIP partnership dissolved in 2008, and the land is now farmed by others.
"I wanted to continue irrigating and not dryland-farming," Knorr says. "For years I'd driven over the (McClusky) canal and wondered, 'What is it for? What does it do?'" Knorr discovered that there were a couple of irrigating farmers off of the canal near Audubon, supplying water to a pivot here and there.
Knorr approached landowners in the Turtle Lake area, interested in selling or long-term leases up to 10 years. CRP contracts were going for $30 to $32 per acre per year. "That was the right amount (of CRP contract)," Knorr says. "It was probably tough to raise a 15- or 20-bushel wheat crop without irrigation."
One of the limiting factors in increasing irrigation is the finances, which is one reason the Knorrs joined with the Topp family. "This was a big chunk of change to do this project," Knorr says.
If the development investment (underground wire, pipes) is $2,000 per irrigated acre, the total outlay is about $8 million, plus the $1.8 million for their share of the lift station, plus an annual water fee of $13 an acre, or $52,000 a year. There is another "operating and management" fee of about $8 an acre, or about $36,000, to Garrison Diversion. And then there's the line of equipment and other operating costs.
In ethanol's shadow
From K&T Farms land, Knorr points out the smokestacks near the Blue Flint Ethanol LLC plant at the Coal Creek Station, 650 feet tall and 25 miles away.
"I've raised corn at $1.75 a bushel in my lifetime. I'm 37 years old," Knorr says. "I'm a huge proponent of ethanol, what it's done for the ag sector -- all commodities." Under irrigation, he expects 180-bushel-per-acre corn.
Still, K&T Farms is looking at other crop options. For the past four years, Knorr has been working with Blaine Schatz of the North Dakota State University Carrington Research Extension Center with a test plot for growing other crops -- energy beets (sugar beets, not bred for the sugar production) and potatoes.
K&T started with a continuous corn rotation and in 2012, switched to a corn-pinto bean rotation. Potatoes are a costly operation to get into, and the production potential hasn't been proven, but this year's plots -- of five vatieties -- look good. Turtle Lake is virgin potato country, which could isolate it from diseases such as verticillium wilt, a disease that affected KIP's farm near Karlsruhe. Knorr says that if K&T gets into irrigated potato production in Turtle Lake, it would be grown every four years.
Knorr has high praise for Kovar and others at the Garrison Diversion office in Carrington, who he says are anxious to have the water used, by him and for other generations, including a young son.
"Do I have future ambitions to develop more irrigation? Absolutely," Knorr says. "Do I have anything in the barrel today? No. This one's taking most of my time."