Water for Food

What can Nebraska teach the American West about managing water? A lot.

March 2, 2018

By: Christina Babbitt, senior manager, California Groundwater Program, Environmental Defense Fund

This blog originally appeared on the Environmental Defense Fund’s Growing Returns Blog


Nebraska is one of the top producers of corn, soybeans and hogs in the country. With 91 percent of the state’s total land area dedicated to agricultural production, a lot of water is needed to support all of Nebraska’s farms and ranches.

Fortunately, the state sits atop one of the largest underground aquifers in the world. The High Plains Aquifer, commonly referred to as the Ogallala Aquifer, underlies parts of eight states from Texas to South Dakota, and is a vital resource to Nebraskan farmers.

But as farms have expanded and demand for agricultural products has grown, pressure on the aquifer has increased and groundwater levels have been in steady decline for decades.

This problem isn’t unique to Nebraska. In fact, it’s a pretty common story across the American West. As farms, cities and populations have grown, they’ve increasingly relied on groundwater, especially during times of drought. As a result, rural communities’ water supplies are threatened, ecosystems suffer, and in some places land even subsides.

Getting to a solution

Knowing that groundwater management is a significant challenge for many western states, my Environmental Defense Fund colleagues and I decided to dig deeper to understand what Nebraska and other states have done to address groundwater challenges.

In partnership with the Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska, we produced a comprehensive report that investigates groundwater management solutions in various regions of the country.

Recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to water management, we produced nine case studies spanning six western states. Each case study captures the different physical, political, and socio-economic contexts that influence water management strategies, and offers unique insights for water managers—a sort of toolbox—for adapting proven methodologies to best fit other local contexts.

Groundwater challenges require innovation
Southwestern Nebraska is one case study in the report that offers an array of innovative strategies.

Since 1972, the state’s Upper Republican Resource District has been addressing groundwater decline by implementing a variety of innovative programs to protect and enhance groundwater quality and availability. Some of the strategies have included:

  • emphasizing public education and outreach to make sure water users and community members are informed;
  • capping the number of acres that can be irrigated within the region; and
  • establishing a system for dividing up limited groundwater supplies among individual users in a way that provides certainty and flexibility to all water users.

As a result, the District has created a cost-effective groundwater management program that is improving water quality and enhancing groundwater sustainability.

While Nebraska’s solutions may be unique to the state and local context, it’s good to know that there are resources available for other state water managers as they embark on a new era of groundwater sustainability.

Whether it’s an innovative pricing mechanism, a new monitoring technology or a creative crediting systems, there are a number of forward-thinking strategies available to regions confronted with groundwater challenges. Places like Colorado’s San Luis Valley and Texas’ Harris-Galveston Subsidence District offer firsthand accounts of the benefits, and sometimes tradeoffs, that these strategies produce.

Water managers from Nebraska to California have an opportunity to leverage the experiences of their neighbors to better ensure the long-term viability of their local communities, their state, and the American West.

Read more about what Nebraska and other western states are doing to manage groundwater more sustainably.

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