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The Key to Nebraska's Water Conservation Success

Other places should emulate the state's model.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was not only an economic calamity for the people of the High Plains but also the greatest environmental disaster ever to hit this nation. It was caused by human behavior. Over 5 million acres of native grasses were plowed up and planted with crops that the land was too arid to sustain. Hundreds of millions of tons of topsoil were blown so far that dust clouds occasionally darkened the skies in East Coast cities.

Today, the High Plains region, which comprises all or part of eight states, is one of the most agriculturally productive in the world. It sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest underground water tables. After World War II, newly developed gasoline-powered pumps and center pivot irrigation allowed farmers to tap into the aquifer, which today supports one-sixth of the world’s grain production.

But the Ogallala’s water is being used up much faster than it is being recharged. Overall, the water level is down more than 15 percent -- a figure that ranges as high as 25 percent in Kansas and an astounding 41 percent in Texas. If the Ogallala’s water were to dry up, the impact would be global.

Those who want to avert a second environmental disaster on the High Plains ought to take a close look at Nebraska. While it has more irrigated acres than any other state, its water level is down only three-tenths of 1 percent. James Goeke, who has studied the aquifer for nearly 40 years, and his wife Karen Amen, who is a board member of one of the state’s 23 Natural Resource Districts (NRDs), told me that the reason for the difference stems from the idea in Nebraska that the groundwater belongs to everyone. That’s in contrast, for example, to Texas, where if you own the land, you own the water.

Nebraska’s system of NRDs was created during the dry 1970s to bring order to a chaotic hodgepodge of soil, flood and water districts. Each NRD is governed by a locally elected board. According to a 2015 study by two water policy experts, Ann Bleed and Christina Hoffman Babbitt, no other state “had delegated so much authority over a state’s natural resources to locally controlled governance.”

Bleed was deeply involved in Nebraska’s water policy for 20 years, first as state hydrologist and eventually as director of the Department of Natural Resources. Once it became clear that groundwater and surface water needed to be managed together, she suggested that the NRDs could meet the challenge. In 2004, the legislature passed a law requiring that the NRDs develop integrated management plans for surface water and groundwater.

The NRDs adhere to principles for sustainable management of common pool resources developed by Elinor Ostrom, the only woman ever to win a Nobel prize for economics. In her 1990 book, Governing the Commons, Ostrom wrote that the central question “is how a group of principals who are in an interdependent situation can organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to freeride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically.” The design principles she came up with included clearly defined boundaries, allowing those who use a resource to participate in decision-making and effective monitoring.

When I asked Bleed whether the NRDs would be able to meet future challenges, including economic downturns and climate change, she said she thought they had “a fighting chance.” We all had better hope they win that fight. 

Mark Funkhouser, a former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, is president of Funkhouse & Associates, an independent consulting firm. He can be reached at
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