By Troy Gilmore, Associate Professor, University of Nebraska
There is a strong awareness of water resources issues among the citizens of Nebraska. Farmers and ranchers are often aware of field-scale challenges of managing water for crop and livestock production. The reliance of most Nebraskans on groundwater for drinking water, plus the long history of irrigated agriculture, means that many citizens interact with this otherwise hidden resource daily. It is no wonder, then, that Nebraska is known for a unique water management approach that features strong local governance through Natural Resources Districts.
There are 23 Natural Resources Districts (NRDs) in Nebraska, each of which employs a manager and staff and is governed by a board of locally elected Directors. Unlike the Soil and Water Conservation Districts that exist in other states, NRDs are specifically tasked with 12 statutory responsibilities, many of which are related to water. Responsibilities include groundwater and surface water management, erosion prevention, flood control, recreation area management, soil conservation, solid waste disposal, and wildlife habitat protection. Decisions often involve interaction with other agencies in Nebraska. For instance, water quality issues are often addressed in conjunction with the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE), while water quantity issues involve the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (NeDNR). As a result, NRDs often develop policies and implement programs in a complex environment with numerous partners and stakeholders.
Nebraska Extension is focused on the translation of scientific information into accessible content, with a historic emphasis on the agricultural producer. Some Extension programs address water and natural resources management at the regional, aquifer, or basin-wide scales at which NRDs often operate. The Nebraska Water Leaders Academy is one example, focusing on learning opportunities around cooperative approaches for solving water issues. At a more technical level, the Nebraska GEOCLOUD program offers seminars, guidelines, and standards for water professionals and agency staff applying complex geological information in water resources problems.
An emerging new educational program, based on close collaboration with Nebraska’s state agencies (NDEE and NeDNR) and several NRDs, is the Nebraska Watershed and Aquifer Virtual Educational System or Nebraska WAVES. Nebraska WAVES is being developed with a specific end-user in mind: the busy citizen who is also interested in engaging in water issues and governance in Nebraska.
Locally elected NRD Directors are a great example of Nebraskans who devote their limited time to water management, so the WAVES team conducted a study to determine their needs, interests, and the formats they preferred to learn about watershed-scale management. Of the directors who participated in the survey, most were interested in technical topics that would inform water management decisions. However, participants only had small amounts of time to devote to the topic, preferably during existing NRD activities, and would need the information carefully curated and concise. Following the needs assessment, the WAVES team has piloted three different online delivery formats for short educational modules, focused on topics identified in the needs assessment.
The WAVES team is collaborating with NeDNR and NDEE to produce a series of online video “trailers” that introduce directors and other stakeholders to the People, Processes, and Models that are encountered when NRDs co-develop policies and programs with state agencies. The goal is to quickly introduce or refresh directors and other stakeholders to the workflows and responsibilities associated with development of integrated management plans or water quality programs. The trailers provide very concise information, but serve as a launching point for longer and more technical educational modules, such as the groundwater age, nitrate, and recharge module and interactive stories about the latest water research projects or case studies.
The Nebraska WAVES team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln includes Troy Gilmore, Katie Pekarek, Erin Ingram, Carla McCullough, Jesse Korus, and Lisa Pennisi and is funded by a Nebraska Environmental Trust grant and UNL’s Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Troy Gilmore, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Troy Gilmore is an Associate Professor in the Conservation and Survey Division – School of Natural Resources and in the Biological Systems Engineering Department at the University of Nebraska. Troy is a groundwater hydrologist with research focused on water quality, interactions of aquifers and streams and improving water monitoring programs. As an Extension Specialist, Troy focuses on developing collaborations with partner agencies to share watershed science information to key decision makers.