Minnesota Public Radio: Big rise in irrigation pumping draws DNR attention to Minnesota’s ‘Bonanza Valley’

(Minnesota Public Radio, February 19, 2014)—In mid-winter, the arching quarter-mile-long sprinkler frames sit parked in Jim Anderson’s fields in a thick crust of wind-carved snow and ice. Come summer, though, they’ll begin their slow, circular rotation, watering row after row of corn, sugar beets and kidney beans.

Anderson, the great-great-grandson of Swedish immigrants who started farming this land in the 1880s, relies on more than 50 of these center pivot irrigators — each one pumping up to 800 gallons of groundwater per minute — to produce the kind of harvests his ancestors could have only dreamed of.

Modern irrigation technology has transformed this region in Stearns, Pope, Douglas and Kandiyohi counties in west central Minnesota, known as the Bonanza Valley. A former glacial river bed north of Willmar, it’s largely covered with thin, sandy soils that don’t retain moisture as well as more fertile farmland elsewhere in the state.

“Without the water, none of this would be possible,” said Anderson, 61, paging through a book of yield maps in a newly built conference room in one of the farm’s red outbuildings. Where his parents struggled in some years to raise a single cob of corn, 200 bushels per acre is now common.

But as groundwater use in the area surges to record levels, questions are resurfacing about whether there will be enough water for future generations of farmers without having an adverse effect on the area’s lakes, streams, wetlands and drinking water supplies. (Continue reading…)