OMAHA, Neb. (AP)--Several professors think tweaking variables on a spreadsheet may be the key for Nebraska's farmers to overcome the drought that has plagued the region for years.

Farmers in about two dozen counties can now use the Water Optimizer, developed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to calculate how much a crop will yield given certain conditions, such as temperature, soil type and irrigation levels.

The goal of the spreadsheet, released in March, is to put farmers in a position of deciding how best to use their water allotments, said Derrel Martin, a professor in water resources and irrigation engineering.

"Mostly it's about picking the most profitable alternative out of that set that they have," Martin said April 26.

Farmers can input their own variables, which also include size of area to be planted, how water would be delivered and production costs. Farmers select their home counties and information such as average rainfall will automatically be added to the calculations, Martin said.

The program is free although a separate tutorial CD and DVD is available for purchase.

Ideally, farmers should perform several calculations so they can see how best to make use of their water, he said.

"We don't want them to do this one time and say 'This is my answer.' We want them to run several different scenarios to see how it's responding," Martin said.

The program was in development for more than a year and involved a team of researchers. Several farmers tested the program and results have been good so far, he said. The researchers have also been holding meetings throughout the region to further discuss water management with farmers.

The current program handles counties in the Panhandle, specifically the Republican River Basin, Martin said. Farmers there have been hard-pressed for water because of a 2002 agreement between Nebraska and Kansas over water rights, he said.

Nebraska agreed to limit new irrigation wells in the basin to end a four-year long dispute with Kansas, which had accused Nebraska of going against a 1943 compact when it allowed the extra wells. The dispute went to the U.S. Supreme Court when it was settled.

This year marks the first time producers will have allocations in the middle and lower portions of the Republican River Basin, he said, so the program is timely. The upper portion has had allocations since 1980, he said.

There are plans to expand the Water Optimizer for use within all of Nebraska's counties, Martin said, as well as create other tools for farmers in the coming years.

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