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Dry conditions spark busiest irrigation permit year since 2001

An irrigation pivot sits in a field Friday morning, four miles south of Mitchell. (Chris Huber/Republic)

KIMBALL -- Even during the driest months of last year's drought, water fell on Rod Larsen's crops. Larsen, 63, farms corn, beans, wheat, hay and sunflowers, and feeds about 4,000 cattle with his three sons on land north of Kimball.

They installed their first pivot irrigation system two years ago and installed three more last year.

"It takes a lot of question marks out of the deal," he said. Even when temperatures soared and rain refused to fall last summer, Larsen's crops were getting moisture. "It ran about every day during the months of July and August."

Larsen said he averaged more than 200 bushels of corn per acre when last year's national average was barely more than 120 bushels per acre.

By irrigating his crops, Larsen also guaranteed a feed source for his cattle.

"With feed prices as high as they are, it looked like it all made sense," he said.

It took about a year of planning and a major financial investment to install irrigation, Larsen said.

Chris Hay, an assistant professor and water management engineer at South Dakota State University, said a combination of drought, high commodity prices and highly priced farmland is driving a trend toward more irrigation in some areas of the state.

"Folks are looking for ways to increase the productivity of land they already own," he said.

The South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued 202 water permits in 2012, more than twice what it issued in 2011 and the most since at least 2001, according to statistics provided by the DENR. The total represents all water permits issued, not just those issued for irrigation.

A water permit can be required for a variety of reasons, but at least 90 percent of them are for farm-related irrigation, according to Ron Duvall, a natural resources engineer with the DENR's water rights program.

After several wet years when little, if any, irrigation was required to bolster crops, the ongoing drought led more farmers to invest in irrigation.

"In the right conditions, it can pay off fairly quickly," Hay said.

For Larsen, investing in irrigation eliminated some risk and hopefully helped guaranteed a future for his farm and his sons.

"If you've got somebody that's going to continue farming and you're going to try to keep things going, it makes sense," he said.

By the end of 2012, there were still 163 water permit applications pending with the DENR.

By late January, Duvall said the number had been cut to 118 applications -- still 21 more permits than were issued in all of 2011.

The sheer volume of applications has slowed the rate the DENR can get permits out, Duvall said. Anyone applying for a ground water permit, as opposed to a surface water permit, who hopes to be irrigating by this summer is most likely a "lost cause," he said.

The majority of recent water permit applications have come from areas where irrigation is already common, Duvall said.

Many of the permit applications have come from southeastern South Dakota, an area hit hard by drought.

"A lot of times they could get by without irrigating," Duvall said. "But not last year."

The cost of an irrigation system depends largely on the farmer's needs and the size of the system, Hay said.

"You're looking at about a $100,000 investment by the time it's all said and done."

As the Corn Belt spreads farther west, it might be logical to expect irrigation to follow, but for now, that doesn't seem to be the case.

"I don't think (irrigation) is coming farther west than it historically has," Hay said.

The availability and quality of water limits farmers in western South Dakota as far as irrigation is concerned, Duvall said.

"You've got to have the water and the right water quality to do it," he said.

"Just because you can grow corn farther west doesn't mean it's going to be irrigated."

The trend toward more irrigation may slow if the drought tapers off, Hay said, but if the price of corn -- a very water-intensive crop -- stays high, farmers chasing higher yields will likely still consider irrigation a viable option.