Letter to the Editor

Nebraska ahead of curve in water management

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Not enough food to satisfy rising worldwide populations, tighter water supplies, a possible slowing of the rate of crop-yield increases -- there's a growing amount of buzz surrounding these and other predictions of future ag-related conditions. An obvious question often follows: How adequate are current water-management policies to address these challenges?

Let's focus for a second on our part of the world, the multi-state region that lies atop the Ogallala Aquifer. The largest aquifer in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world, it's a significant reason Nebraska is a Top 5 state in seven agricultural categories -- value of ag and livestock products sold, sales of grains, sales of cattle and calves, and acres in corn and sorghum, to name a few.

Nebraska's water-management scheme may not be perfect, no regulatory framework is. But the locally-based regulatory authority provided through Nebraska's one-of-a-kind Natural Resources Districts and in cooperation with the state Department of Natural Resources has proven in many important facets to be the most effective framework in the Ogallala Aquifer region, positioning Nebraska and our region to be a continued leader in agricultural production for generations to come. This isn't just my opinion as a manager of an NRD. It's shared by experts in a range of disciplines, from economics to environmental studies, and will likely attract more attention as other states look for ways to transition from virtually unimpeded agricultural water use to reasonably regulated use that protects water resources while still allowing the economy to thrive.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback recently hosted a conference in western Kansas attended by more than 300 people where he bluntly stated the need for his state to enact new policies to better manage water. His staff showed maps indicating that in some parts of southwest Kansas, the aquifer has declined by more than 150 feet. Even though roughly 150-250 feet of saturated thickness remain in some areas, officials there project that if more isn't done to control use the aquifer in those areas won't be usable in just 25-50 years.

The declines are roughly double the steepest aquifer declines in Nebraska, including some that have occurred in primarily upland areas of the Upper Republican NRD that would have been significantly worse without 30 years of regulations in our district and that we are committed to slowing. Kansas has the ability to do more to preserve its resources, but it largely hasn't occurred because of a system that for a variety of reasons discourages cooperative decision-making by local and state officials. Local officials in Kansas, to their credit, are working to change the system so that common-sense regulations can be put in place.

Similar declines as those experienced in Kansas have occurred in larger regions of the Texas panhandle that helped prompt my NRD to successfully push for NRDs to have the authority to regulate groundwater in the late 1970s. Our district became the first in the state to impose allocations, doing so in 1980.

Groundwater districts in the Texas panhandle just recently developed plans for how to manage their groundwater, and some of the plans are beginning to emerge. In a region near Lubbock that on average gets annual precipitation similar to what is received in my NRD, a so-called 50/50 target has been established. The goal is to deplete no more than 50 percent of what remains of the aquifer over the next 50 years. While laudable that Texas is taking steps to regulate groundwater use, similar measures here in Nebraska would be considered laughable because we all agree The Good Life should last forever, not just 50 years or so.

My intent isn't to criticize other states or hold our system up as perfect, but I think what the comparison shows is that Nebraska is well ahead of the curve with water management relative to other states because at least we are in a position to make decisions based on local conditions.

Recently in Nebraska Farmer magazine, respected UNL ag economist Ray Suppala, who is retiring, said that with the enactment of LB962 in 2005 that provided for a cooperative water-planning process conducted by NRD and state officials that balances the interests of competing water users and considers sustainability objectives, Nebraska water planning is "the most progressive of any Western state."

Environmentalists and economists often don't agree, but they may well on this point.

Early this year, the Environmental Defense Fund's former senior attorney for rivers and deltas, Mary Kelly, presented a study she did exploring water management in Nebraska compared to other states. She praised Nebraska's system as preferable.

An excerpt from the paper: "These broad and flexible powers give Nebraska NRDs distinct advantages over similar districts in other states that rely on local control. Texas, for example, also relies on local districts as the preferred approach to ground water management, but ... most districts have been created on county jurisdictional lines, not on aquifer or river basin boundaries."

"Even with distinct surface water and ground water regimes," Kelly says in another section, "some states centralize management in a state resource agency, as opposed to locally-based regulation. In theory, there are potential benefits to this approach assuming state decision-makers are more insulated from local political pressures, but it is certainly no guarantee of sustainable management. And, in some cases, local interests may be more aggressive than state policy makers in protecting their resources."

Water-resource conditions in Ogallala Aquifer states illustrate the truth of that last sentence. As the NRDs approach their 40th anniversary of protecting lives, property, and the future, it's Nebraskans who are to thank for establishing a system that could be template for water and resource management beyond the state's borders.

-- Jasper Fanning, who holds a doctorate in agricultural economics, has been manager of the Upper Republican NRD based in Imperial, Nebraska since 2004.

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