This is a story about Nebraska, but I have reason to believe, the lessons Nebraskans are learning are pertinent to all United States. In Nebraska, as in the rest of the United States, the use of surface water started early. It wasn’t long, particularly in the arid west, that the adage, “Whiskey’s for drinkin, water’s for fightin” became true. Yet, in time we developed rules and surface water storage reservoirs to tame, if not eliminate, the water wars.
Although the use of ground water for domestic wells and some irrigation along streams started early, it wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth century, with the invention of methods to drill and pump from deep wells and the innovative development of the center pivot, that ground water use began to develop. Again, in Nebraska as elsewhere, ground water helped slake our ever increasing demand for water and quell the water wars.
For a time, with large surface and ground water reservoirs at our disposal, we in Nebraska truly lived the good life. Even in the dry years of the 1970s, squabbles among water users were few. Many believed with our endless ground water supplies, we had solved our water problems. This myth was bolstered by the strong belief in people’s minds that surface water and ground water are connected. Even state law did not recognize a connection. Gradually, however, our streamflows, and worse yet the alluvial aquifers fed by stream flows, started to decline. Surface water users, with permitted water rights, environmentalists, started complaining that ground water pumping was drying up Nebraska’s surface water supplies.
With the threat of law suits, from both within and outside the state, slowly Nebraskans and Nebraska law began to take small steps toward recognizing that surface water and ground water are indeed connected. But the politics were, and still are, such that neither the courts nor the legislature seem inclined to tackle the problem. Hence the water wars have started again and seem to grow, in proportion to our growing water demands.
Yet, I see signs of hope. We are slowly starting to recognize that our surface water and ground water supplies are not only connected, but in many instances are simply different manifestations of a single resource. In addition, although in the early 1900s, Robert Willis, one of Nebraska’s early water engineers, recognized the importance of surface water irrigation for maintaining alluvial aquifers and streamflow during the irrigation season, we are just now starting to actively manage some of our surface water canals for ground water recharge. And, better yet, where these management schemes are being realized, the “fightin” words between surface water users and ground water users is beginning to disappear.
The importance of the realization that managing interconnected surface water and ground water as one resource was recently demonstrated at a water users task force, The Water Funding Task Force was established by the legislature to develop much needed funding for water research, management, and infrastructure. A battle between surface water users and ground water users over who should allocate the funds was widely expected to block any consensus on a recommendation for the legislature. That did not happen. Why? After much education and discussion among task force members, the task force recognized that ground water and surface water are not only connected, but where there are these connections are simply different manifestations of one resource. Also, and importantly, they came to understand that if we are to sustain the water uses that provide Nebraska with the good life, we must work together to manage this precious resource as one supply. With this understanding a consensus, which few expected, was achieved. Perhaps, the rest of the state can learn from the task force and instead of funding lawsuits, we can stop “fightin”, and use our resources to solve our mutual water resource problems.