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North Dakota's aquifer levels stay fairly steady during 2021 drought

Although some shallow aquifers that are used for watering livestock were drawn down during the drought, the deep aquifers that are used for irrigation were not, said Chris Bader, North Department of Water Resources director of water appropriation.

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Interest in irrigation in North Dakota typically picks up during and after droughts, officials say. Maggie Malson / Grand Vale Creative LLC

The drought of 2021 has not had a significant effect on North Dakota’s deep aquifers, said the state's Department of Water Resources director of water appropriation.

Although some shallow aquifers that are used for watering livestock were drawn down during the drought, the deep aquifers that are used for irrigation and other uses, such as municipal water, were not, Chris Bader said.

The shallow wells used for stock water didn’t have a large supply of water to begin with and are first to show the effects of drought, he said. Deep aquifers, however, are more resilient, and the water level in those typically don’t drop during the first year of a drought.

North Dakota’s water management plan is focused on long-term protection of the supply, so it is conservative in its approach to approving irrigation permits, Bader said. From the beginning, North Dakota laws were implemented to protect the state’s water supply.

There are 2,270 water permits in North Dakota, including conditionally approved, perfected, and those held in abeyance.

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Conditionally approved permits are ones that have fulfilled administrative criteria, undergone hydrological review and have been approved to begin applying water for beneficial use, according to the North Dakota Department of Water Resources. The permit holder has until a specified date to develop the project and can request an extension to put water to beneficial use.

Perfected permits, meanwhile, are those in which the water was appropriated under a conditional use permit and have been inspected by the Natural Resource Department to verify the permit conditions have been met.

Applicants of permits held in abeyance have met administrative criteria, undergone hydrologic review and been partially approved to begin applying water, but the remaining are temporarily suspended. Typically portions are held in abeyance while the approved portion of the permit is being developed, additional hydrological data is being collected or there is concern about the sustainability of the water source, according to the North Dakota Department of Water Resources.

Besides the 2,270 water permits in North Dakota, there are 186 applications for permits, Bader said. Fifty-three of the permit applications were made this year, which is nearly double the number of 2019 and 2020, combined.

Interest in irrigation ebbs and flows, typically increasing during drought years, said Tom Scherer, North Dakota State University Extension specialist, Department of Biosystems and Engineering.

“When I first got here in 1991, there was quite a bit of interest because we had just got through the dry period of the late 1980s,” Scherer said.

Interest in irrigation was piqued then because companies, such as Simplot, which had seen its potato supply shrink during the drought in the late 1980s, wanted their growers to ensure they had a stable supply of water.

The North Dakota Department of Water Resources continuously monitors aquifer levels and in the event of a long-term drought like the one in the 1930s, would take steps to maintain them, Bader said.

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If aquifers show signs of stress, the Department of Water Resources would first shut down junior applicators or those who have the newest water permits, he said.

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: abailey@agweek.com or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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