by Kyle Hoagland
From 'History of the UNL Nebraska Water Center, from 1964 to 2008', School of Natural Resources: Karen E. Stork and Steven W. Ress, p. 62-68.
Director from 2000-2009
A 1999 Water Forum enumerated four specific recommendations (italicized) for the future of the Nebraska Water Center. I discovered these only recently, while in the process of writing this history, which doesn’t bode well for committee work in general. It does, however, offer a unique opportunity to reflect on these well considered guides nearly a decade later, without the benefits or limitations of knowing about them in advance. They also serve as a useful starting point for thinking seriously about the future of the UNL Nebraska Water Center.
- There is a need for aggressive leadership and better coordination of research funding and programming. The Nebraska Water Center director should facilitate and organize faculty and research as a system-wide center directly under the guidance of the UNL Vice Chancellor for Research, but have no salaried faculty members other than the director. The director’s position should remain full-time.
The 54 water centers (one in each state, plus Guam, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and Washington D.C.) are typically located at Land Grant institutions. They are charged with serving their entire state, particularly in terms of U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) 104b seed grants.
Consequently, this national network is well positioned to help coordinate efforts at local, regional, and national levels.
In Nebraska, water faculty are located at several institutions across the state, including UNL, University of Nebraska-Kearney, University of Nebraska-Omaha, Creighton University and Peru State College. Still, the majority of the more than 130 faculty members who work in water-related fields are at UNL.
Therein lies the challenge that the forum addressed in 1999, which is still pertinent today, namely how does a water center lead, coordinate, facilitate and organize a large, diverse faculty who reside in as many different buildings as the sub-disciplines they represent and who are in no way beholding to the water center director for their academic appointment or tenure? For that matter, what’s the point of facilitating research for a diverse group of scientists, engineers, sociologists, economists and others?
The answers lie in the very nature of the basic water challenges that society must presently address. Today’s water resources challenges, and those for the foreseeable future, are largely complex environmental issues requiring interdisciplinary teams of water faculty in basic science, applied science, and human dimensions, to have any hopes for finding viable solutions.
More than 30 years after 1972’s Clean Water Act was enacted, we continue to struggle with the relationship between science and law in creating environmental policy. This ongoing ‘troubled marriage’ between water science and law/policy is a result of segregation of water-related fields in academic programs.
Federal granting agencies recognized this need to better integrate water science and human dimensions, for example, the National Science Foundation’s Water and Watersheds program and Coupled Natural and Human Systems program (an outgrowth of its Biocomplexity program).
This novel overall approach is designed to investigate complex natural and human systems, reflecting a new approach to difficult water issues. Resilient aquatic ecosystems are the primary goal that drives this approach to water resources management. Active coordination and facilitation of water faculty research, education and outreach is thus even more important today than in 1999.
Our approach to this challenge over the past ten years has been to: (a) inform faculty of what the other 129 water faculty are doing in each of the challenge areas (via an annual water research colloquium, workshops on cutting-edge topics, and research-based retreats to allow more time to address larger issues.), (b) create as sense of “water community” among faculty (via an expanded faculty directory, and periodic informal social events), and (c) develop research teams to address specific issues and to seek extramural funding to support larger-scale studies and address problems in a more comprehensive way. Thus far, this approach has been effective in facilitating the formation of larger, interdisciplinary faculty teams who are now working on the more complex water resource challenges facing the State and beyond. Learning how to sustain these efforts is an ongoing process.
This is not only a recipe for a water institute to attempt to meet its legislative mandate and address the 1999 Forum’s notion of how a center ought to operate, but is also a formula essential for universities in general to contribute in meaningful ways to the myriad environmental problems that society now faces.
The water centers can even serve as useful models of how universities perhaps should evolve. That faculty are not part of any particular academic unit or at least their affiliations may be more fluid, interdisciplinary teams of faculty may form to address crucial issues, then dissolve as new issues arise, all without “turf” or rigid departmental lines being drawn.
A compelling reason for this model is that the science and engineering disciplines evolve far more rapidly than the university academic departments, centers, schools and colleges that represent them. Since department lines so often don’t keep pace with the science, they may actually hinder progress by inherently discouraging interdisciplinary research.
- Nebraska Water Center director should facilitate both long-term and immediate goals and funding of water-related research at NU. One of the top priorities would be the allocation of funds to researchers. The director should facilitate lateral interchange between the center and researchers.
This forum recommendation is also aimed at integration of water faculty through the center’s allocation of funds to encourage or even require interchange among researchers. More importantly, this recommendation addresses the critical issue of timescale in addressing research questions, an important element of several federal granting agencies today (e.g., NSF). It’s interesting to note that UNL Nebraska Water Center funding was declining markedly in 1999, as Nebraska Research Initiative funds were being reallocated campus-wide. As a result, the center lost more than $500,000 in discretionary funds over a two to three-year period, ending in fiscal 2000. Consequently, allocation of funds was no longer a feasible priority.
- Director should facilitate and actively pursue water research funding, as well as disseminate information both to the public and to research faculty, staff and students.
It should be clear by now that the Water Forum took research funding facilitation very seriously! This recommendation took the additional step of identifying outreach education as an important role for the Nebraska Water Center. This is entirely consistent with the centers’ third Congressional mandate (via the Water Resources Research Act of 1964), “To facilitate water research coordination and the application of research results by means of information dissemination and by technology transfer.”
- Nebraska Water Center should act as a data clearinghouse for researchers and focus on both short- and long-term research and programming.
In 2006, the recently established Water Resources Advisory Panel (WRAP) surveyed specific state water research needs. This was largely prompted by a widely recognized need for UNL research to more closely align with an increasingly long list of water issues Nebraska is facing, particularly water quantity problems exacerbated by a prolonged drought. After a review by university faculty, the following priorities were established by WRAP:
- Assessment of information needs to develop a better understanding between surface water and groundwater resources
- Related topics that impact the water budget, i.e., changes in land use and agricultural practices; impact of riparian vegetation on water use; and groundwater – surface water interaction.
- Determine best management activities/tools to reduce consumptive use and provide the best economic, environmental and social benefits per acre-foot of water consumed.
- Economic impacts of management activities.
As these priorities show, agriculture has long been and will continue to be a basic building block of Nebraska’s economy and farming and ranching depend heavily on water. In order to serve those needs and state interests in general, the Nebraska Water Center must continue to foster research supporting Nebraska’s economy and its communities, large and small.
By necessity, the Nebraska Water Center’s highest priority will continue to be new funding sources needed to carry on its water-related research missions. To that end, a “Top 10” list was compiled based on input from UNL water faculty, WRAP, an ad hoc workshop group of 30 water experts from across Nebraska, and the readership of the Nebraska Water Center’s quarterly newsletter, Water Current. The list, while still evolving, represents this collective input:
Top 10 Water Challenges for Nebraska
This listing is unranked, also recognizing that several challenges may fit into more than one of the three sub-categories (e.g., challenge #7 - monitoring system, also has immediate water quantity implications, and #8 also poses water quality challenges); K-gray education/outreach are inherent and very important needs inherent in all of these challenges:
- Effects of water consumption and conservation practices on instream-flows, groundwater recharge and water supplies, including ethanol production; realizing the maximum water use efficiency for irrigation (e.g., changing from gravity flow to center pivot) is a key factor.
- Invasive exotic species (e.g., purple loosestrife, salt cedar, Phragmites), particularly in riparian buffer strips and in stream channels.
- Climate change, especially the impacts of global warming and increased climate variability, particularly the frequency and severity of droughts and floods on water availability.
- Nitrate, uranium, arsenic, and pesticide contamination of drinking water supplies, and nitrate contamination of irrigation sources.
- Non-point source (NPS) nutrient and sediment inputs in lakes, streams and reservoirs, including toxic algae treatment and prevention, and establishing of Maximum Contaminant Loadings (MCLs) for nutrients in NE.
- Potential surface and ground water contamination by “emerging” contaminants (including endocrine disrupting compounds), such as steroid hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, surfactants, and disinfectants, from grain and livestock production, biosolids application, biofuel production, and municipal/residential wastewater sources.
- Creating and supporting more comprehensive, ongoing, real-time water monitoring, including stream gauging and cyberinfrastructure networks that are linked to predictive models, readily accessible to the public, and coupled with smart decision-support tools. Understanding the connection between surface and ground water is especially important.
- Aging water infrastructure, including drinking water distribution systems (esp. in small rural communities), wastewater treatment, storm runoff, irrigation systems, dams, levees, and canals.
- Water economics and water policy, including establishment of water markets and water banking, and recognition and development of water resources as a natural resource amenity for recreational use (incl. greater public access) and wildlife habitat.
- Creation of effective social systems to influence individual and institutional behavioral change for sustainable management of water resources, including a viable legal framework, ongoing financial support, and an increased focus on collaborative solution development.
An obvious question remains, “How does this list compare to one compiled in 1964 when the Nebraska Water Center was formed?” or more to the point, “Are we facing the same water challenges today or have some of them been solved over the past 40 years?”
I believe the answers to these questions are critical in assessing the future the Nebraska Water Center, and water institutes in general. Unfortunately, no such list was compiled in 1964 so far as we know. Observations lead me to believe that (a) many of the same issues that plagued water resources managers in 1964 remain major challenges today, e.g., eutrophication and other problems resulting from non-point source inputs of excess nutrients into waterways; (b) while it appears that no challenges have been entirely removed from the list, it is also true that the level of knowledge that is apparent in the wording of the 2007-08 list clearly reflects the fact that significant progress has been made in addressing these issues; (c) the general category that likely would have received far less attention in 1964 is water institutions, and; (d) there are several challenges on the 2007-08 list that would not have been found on the 1964 list (e.g., global climate change, frequent drought, biofuels concerns and, by definition, emerging contaminants).
If the need for water resources research, education and outreach can be gauged by the number and magnitude of the challenges we face today and if the water institutes can in any way address those needs, then clearly there is a vital future ahead for the Nebraska Water Center.
First, I would also argue that this list of challenges is in no way unique to Nebraska, rather they represent regional challenges and are similar to those facing the nation, indeed globally.
Second, it is important to point out that despite the fact that most items that presumably would have occurred on a 1964 list are still there today should not be interpreted as a lack of progress. Tremendous strides have been made in many of the areas still listed today, for example in water quality improvements in rivers across the U.S. (significant declines in lead contamination nationwide) and in applications of remote sensing technologies to water resource challenges (e.g., ET estimates, and cyanobacteria mapping and prediction).
If water institutes continue to provide leadership toward quality water resources research, education and outreach, then the outlook for them is indeed bright, because the water challenges we currently face are more critical and challenging than ever before.
A reliable source of clean, safe drinking water and reliable sources of water sufficient for agricultural was almost taken for granted in 1964 (recalling that the first Earth Day was held in 1969), whereas today’s challenges are much better defined.
Solutions are another matter, which will undoubtedly require at least another generation of dedicated, highly trained water scientists, engineers, and water law/policy experts to do what needs to be done to make our aquatic ecosystems resilient and sustainable.
There is much to be done.