High water tables as winter comes to close

Published: Feb. 12, 2020 at 10:54 PM CST
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After the extreme amounts of rainfall last year, the water table across Central Nebraska is high. As we head into Spring, this could pose an issue for farmers, but it could recede with a couple dry early Spring weeks. August alone was the wettest month on record in Grand Island, with near a foot of rain in the month. Apart from that, there was the March flooding event, several heavy rains in May, more in June and July, and finally drying out by late September. Flooding would be the most suited word to summarize Nebraska weather in 2019.

All of that water has to go somewhere, and with so much, it takes time for it to drain to the rivers. As a result, the groundwater level, or the water table, rises closer to the surface. In low-lying areas, water may begin to pond just because the water table has risen above the ground level. If it sticks around into planting season, this could be an issue for farmers in river valleys.

Dr Ron Seymour from the University of Nebraska Extension office spoke with me today about this. He said that it's still uncertain if the ground will freeze from a deep cold spell, or if it dries out near the surface from more warm and dry conditions. "So it's kind of a wait and see. Right now, the high water tables, if they continue in places where it it could affect planting significantly. And if we get some drying then those water tables could recede." Dr. Seymour says that the freeze-thaw-cycles do help agriculture, as it can open up pores in potentially compacted soil.

Other actions that farmers could take would be to plant short-term crops like oats which the roots themselves could aerate the soil. The importance of this is to open up gaps so oxygen can enter the soil. If the water table is too high and saturates the soil and these pores, it could hinder the growth of main crops through the early growing season.

Other areas with high clay content can sometimes hold onto water longer. Dr. Seymour highlighted the areas around Axtel, Holdrege, and Clay County which have these wetlands. "Those wetland areas are there because they have high clay in the soil. And so those areas don't drain very quickly. If we have a high water table or additional moisture, it could be more difficult for those people to plant."

So the hope is that we don't have too much of a cold spell that would produce ice jams and solidify the soil (as in late Feb/early March 2019), and less rainfall in the coming month. After temps warm up a bit, if there are a couple dry weeks, then the upper 6 to 12 inches of soil can begin to dry out, and this time it will turn out to be an easier planting season than 2019.

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