A dry summer, thirsty crops

FORDVILLE, N.D. -- Many farmers in northeast North Dakota have struggled with excess moisture in fields for years. On July 18, during a summer in which drought grips most of the area, a group of farmers and others interested in irrigation looked ...

Jim Langerud
Jim Langerud, an Edinburg, N.D., farmer, stands in front of a old gravel pit that ties into an underground aquifer. He uses the water to irrigate nearby fields. Langerud spoke during a tour Wednesday on irrigation sites in northeast North Dakota. Jonathan Knutson, Agweek Staff

FORDVILLE, N.D. -- Many farmers in northeast North Dakota have struggled with excess moisture in fields for years.

On July 18, during a summer in which drought grips most of the area, a group of farmers and others interested in irrigation looked at innovative ways of putting more moisture into the soil.

About 40 people took part in the North Dakota Water Education Foundation's Innovations in Irrigation tour. They visited irrigation sites near the North Dakota communities of Fordville, Edinburg, Hensel and Cavalier to see how the sites' farmers and operators are putting water to good use.

More irrigation opportunities exist in northeast North Dakota, but farmers shouldn't hope for too much, says Jon Patch of the State Water Commission, who participated in the irrigation tour.

"There isn't a lot of undeveloped area out there," he says.


Irrigation relies on both surface water and groundwater.

Most of the available surface water in northeast North Dakota is tapped already, irrigation officials say.

Virtually all of the groundwater used for irrigation comes from aquifers, or underground layers of rock or soil that contain water. Aquifers in northeast North Dakota are small and contain relatively little water, so the State Water Commission, which issues permits for the use of water, is determined not to overuse them, Patch says.

Less rainfall during extended drought cuts into the rate at which aquifers recharge. That reduces the amount of water they can supply at the very time farmers want to make greater use of them, Patch says.

Most of northeast North Dakota is in moderate or severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of academic and government scientists.

Tapping the Forest River

The Hutterite colony near Fordville, N.D., has been irrigating since 1973.

Today, the Hutterites take excess water from the nearby Forest River in spring and use it to augment irrigation water drawn from the Inkster Aquifer.


The river water is stored in large holes in the spring. Later, when needed, it's used to irrigate nearby fields. After the river water is applied, much of it sinks slowly into the underlying Inkster Aquifer. That helps to recharge the aquifer, which increases the amount of water the Hutterites can draw from it for irrigation.

Some river water also makes its way back into the Forest River during the summer, when the river typically is low.

The arrangement is good for both the Hutterites and people living downstream, says Milt Lindvig with the North Dakota Irrigation Association, and tour participant.

Though the Hutterites have been irrigating for nearly 30 years, they continue to improve at it, says Jonathan Maendel, a colony official who spoke during the tour.

"There's a big learning curve. We've learned a lot," he says.

The Hutterites -- whose land is sandy and dries out quickly without regular rain or irrigation -- also farm some land that isn't irrigated, Maendel says.

Crops on land that isn't irrigated are much poorer this summer than crops on irrigated fields, he saysNo ordinary gravel pit

Edinburg farmer Jim Langerud isn't one to give up easily.


In the late 1990s, he approached the State Water Commission about possibly using water that had accumulated in a gravel pit to irrigate nearby fields.

Patch, who recalls that initial contact, says he thought water in the gravel pit was too limited for use in irrigation.

But Langerud persisted and received approval to begin testing in the summer of 2000. He pumped water from the gravel pit around the clock for 31 days, drawing out 1,107 gallons per minute. Even so, water remained in the pit.

Further study found that the gravel pit tapped into a small, previously unknown aquifer, says Patch, acknowledging that his original assumption about the gravel pit was wrong.

Today, with approval of the State Water Commission, Langerud is irrigating 480 acres with water from the aquifer.

"They probably thought I was a little crazy when I first came to them with this," Langerud says with a smile. "But it's worked out."

The irrigation projects near Hensel and Cavalier both use water from flood-control dams.

Big-picture look


The amount of irrigated farmland in North Dakota has been growing, on balance, by about 2,000 to 3,000 acres annually, according to irrigation officials.

Even though the region had been in a long wet cycle, some farmers were attracted by the safety net that irrigation provides, officials say.

As of 2010, 272,000 acres were irrigated, about 1 percent of North Dakota's 27.5 million cropland acres.

Corn accounted for about 35 percent of the irrigated acres, with many other crops, primarily soybeans, wheat, potatoes and edible beans, accounting for the rest, according to figures supplied by the North Dakota Irrigation Association.

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