Water for Food

Pipelines of power: A closer look at Nebraska’s groundwater management

January 4, 2016

Republican River, east of Harlan, Neb.

By: Brianna Brown, research assistant, Crisis

“To me, it became a lot more practical to deal with water as entity [instead of] differentiated from groundwater or surface water. If you think you recognize at the start that you simply were handling water, you weren’t handling groundwater and surface water, you simply were managing your water, dang it, water is water. But I don’t know if there’s any damn way we can back up and redo it.”

-Lloyd Fischer, Former Agro-Economist (Horn, 2014)

A research project that originally aimed to look at the decision making process behind the construction of pipelines in the Republican River Basin, in the southwestern portion of Nebraska, soon became a subtle analysis of the balance of power between Natural Resource Districts (NRDs), surface water users, and the State Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The opening quote captures the tension caused by having a connected resource that is governed by two separate entities with varying degrees of control.

This past summer, I conducted a research project on freshwater management in Nebraska as part of my master’s of science degree in environment and development at the London School of Economics. In the 1970s, Nebraska responded to the challenge of better water management by creating a unique system of local governance to manage groundwater. The state‘s 23 Natural Resources Districts (NRDs) have taxing powers, authority over decisions about soil erosion, flood prevention and control, and most importantly groundwater management.

Eager to gain a greater grasp of how the NRDs function, I set out developing a research project about the recent construction of pipelines to meet state compliance for the Republican River Compact. I conducted five qualitative, in-depth interviews with different actors involved with the Republican River Basin. Additionally, I used the NRD Oral History Project conducted in 2014, which provides interviews conducted with 73 key figures in the development and management of the NRDs.

What I found from my research is that while the NRDs have been an incredible force to slow the decline of water tables across the state, like most things, systems of management evolve. We learn new knowledge, and that changes the way we do things. In 2004 an important piece of knowledge was legally sanctioned in Nebraska: a law recognizing the connection between groundwater pumping and stream flow. This important legislation created change in that it initiated the development of Integrated Management Plans (IMPs) to address concerns about stream flow impacts of pumping in several areas of the state.

My findings suggest that the development of IMPs is an intermediary step toward Nebraska’s water management evolution. The limitations of governing a connected resource through disparate entities demonstrate inefficiencies. I argue that an imbalance of power between the NRDs and the State DNR and Irrigation Districts has contributed to declining water tables in the southwestern portion of Nebraska.

The creation and control of the Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement (N-CORPE) pipeline is an example of the autonomy NRDs have over managing groundwater resources. The N-CORPE project was designed to meet the water allocation levels that Kansas secured as part of the tri-state compact between Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado. Without the pipeline, during compact call years, the irrigators in the Republican Basin would need to reduce their consumption levels to ensure that the required water amount passes through to the Republican River at the border to Kansas.

In 2012, the Upper Republican, Middle Republican, Lower Republican and Twin Platte NRDs purchased 19,518 acres of formerly irrigated land in Lincoln County. The land is no longer being irrigated and, instead, 30 high capacity groundwater wells on the property function to supply water to a pipeline that feeds Republican River stream flow during droughts.

Since the Republican Basin is already in a fully-appropriated status, the pipeline project must not increase consumption of groundwater. However in the first year and a half of use, more than 60,000 acre-feet of water were pumped — an amount far greater than the 16,000 acre-feet that were pumped annually before the purchased land was retired. In other words, the groundwater resource is being used in order to stay in compliance and also continues to be used by groundwater users.

As the pipeline pumps water from a groundwater mound (where the depth to groundwater is low) the impact on the resource may not be seen immediately. Maps produced by the U.S. Geological Survey and University of Nebraska-Lincoln show a decline of groundwater resources in the southwestern portion of the state, long before the pipeline was put in place. Many water users in the state are concerned that the pipeline will further exacerbate these declines. One of my informants, a former state hydrologist, shared, “If you over pump today, even if you stop pumping for 20 years, because of the lag effect, depletion will continue. Allowing pumping to continue may in fact cause increased depletions in the future.”

In 1996, Kurt Stephenson wrote an article about the Upper Republican NRD, in which he noted that the managers of the NRDs act in ways that represent a “strong conservation ethic and faith in the efficacy of science and technology to provide solutions to problems”(Stephenson 1996). My own research points to similar findings. While the NRDs are ensuring that the resource is not being used wastefully by groundwater users, in some areas, the resource is being depleted faster than it can recharge. The pipeline project uses technology to avoid having to reduce consumption, however, the evidence points to the pipeline being a strain on a resource that is already experiencing declines.

I argue that NRDs have been designed to act in the interest of their constituents, not necessarily in the interest of the resource as a whole, or of all resource users. If they are not provided with adequate regulations from a senior governance institution, can they be expected and relied upon to consistently volunteer regulations that will benefit individuals living outside their constituencies, to non-groundwater users, or to ensure the sustainability of the entire freshwater resource? I argue that as groundwater impacts surface water, the actions of NRDs need to be understood within this context and the voice of surface water users should be heard regarding the resource on which they also depend.

Instead of two separate systems of governance for ground and surface water, one option would be for irrigation districts and NRDs to be amalgamated. Finally, I suggest that acting at the local level, the NRDs cannot be expected to make decisions regarding actions required beyond their constituencies on their own. With the oversight of the total resource impact within state boundaries, the state needs to fulfil the role of ensuring that the resource not only meets local needs, but also current and future needs of all resource users.

The NRDs are a crucial part of the framework of limiting the amount of groundwater that is depleted from Nebraska’s highly valued aquifers. However, the NRDs were created to act as local decision makers and are only one player in the management of the total freshwater resource. My MS thesis seeks to shed light on the importance of balancing the power of all resource stakeholders to ensure the sustainability of the resource, as well as fair treatment of all those who depend on ground and/or surface water.


Brianna Brown

Brianna Brown

Brianna Brown recently earned a Master of Science in environment and development from the London School of Economics and Political Science. The increasing depletion of freshwater resources across the United States drew Brianna to study the unique system of resource management in Nebraska. She now seeks a career in environmental social policy to work towards achieving equitable resource management for both people and planet.

Further reading: Read Brianna’s master’s thesis, “The Limitations of Local Control on a Connected Resource: A Case Study of Groundwater Management in the Republican River Basin.

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