Benefits and Costs Need to Be Considered in Managing the Waters of the Great Plains in a Sustainable Way

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Prairie Fire Newspaper went on hiatus after the publication of the September 2015 issue. It may return one of these days but until then we will continue to host all of our archived content for your reading pleasure. Many of the articles have held up well over the years. Please contact us if you have any questions, thoughts, or an interest in helping return Prairie Fire to production. We can also be found on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you to all our readers, contributors, and supporters - the quality of Prairie Fire was a reflection of how many people it touched (touches).

Bias Alert: The publisher of Prairie Fire has been involved in Missouri River Basin water policy for forty-five years. On September 21, 2011, Prairie Fire convened a meeting of twelve Nebraskans, with over five hundred years of combined experience working with Nebraska water development funding and policy, to answer the following questions:

What are annual funding needs for water development in Nebraska?

What qualifies as water development?

Who decides how funds for water development are spent?

What are the funding sources?

The group’s report was sent to the Nebraska legislature. After several years of hard work, Legislative Bill 906 became law and is now being implemented. With the many changes required to make such a complex program gather the support of a majority of the legislature (for passage), there are a wide range of interpretations as to legislative intent. We hope that the commission, charged with the responsibility of implementing the program, will manage the distribution of this and future water funding so that money will be proportionately distributed for water research efforts, rehabilitation of older water projects, and funding for new water projects (targeted for both water quantity and water quantity objectives). No single category should dominate the distribution of funds. This effort is long overdue and will need continued support for the next decade, and beyond. Godspeed, mates.

By Peter Calow

In a part of the world where conditions lurch from drought to flood over a matter of weeks, as they have done on the Plains in recent years, it is understandable that water problems are generally seen in terms of supply. But water quality is also important. All the beneficial uses that we make of our waters, such as for drinking, to support food production through irrigation, to satisfy domestic and industrial needs, not to forget the support of wildlife, depend crucially on good quality water. Yet many of those uses potentially add contaminants to the water.

The dilemma is a familiar one. Something we all derive great benefit from, on the Great Plains especially food production from agriculture, has side effects on other aspects of our lives that impair environment and human health. Sustainable management solutions have to take account of these trade-offs

In a couple of briefings prepared for the Planning Committee of Nebraska Legislature by myself and a multidisciplinary group of scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln earlier this year we argued for more urgent attention to be given to water quality issues in the state and across the Great Plains because the pressures on water quality are likely to get worse over both short and long terms. These pressures come from three sources: the intensification of agriculture in response to increasing food demands, complications in the ways chemicals contaminate the water environment from more variable rainfall as a result of climate change, and aging infrastructures for sewage and drinking water treatment. The solutions are likely to be costly, and so for the sake of being cost effective, we need an integrated approach that recognizes the interconnections between surface and ground waters (including the aquifers) and takes account of the trade-offs described above in developing policy for addressing water quality.

Environmental monitoring programs in Nebraska are picking up appreciable contamination in all parts of the water systems. For example, the presence of bacteria in rivers compromises recreational uses that involve surface contact, and chemicals such as herbicides threaten wildlife. Artificial enrichment of lakes from water draining from farmland causes fouling and can lead to blooms of toxic algae. Nitrates are present in groundwater, and there are some hotspots around the state. If they turn up in drinking waters, these nitrates can affect health in themselves, but another potential concern is that they alter chemical conditions in the groundwater in a way that can mobilize natural, but nevertheless nasty, substances such as uranium, with the possibility of them then getting into the water that we drink. Nebraska is somewhat worse than neighboring states in most of these respects, but all face similar issues.

Undoubtedly agriculture is the major source of contamination of water on the Great Plains through the use of fertilizers and biocides of various kinds. And the ways these escape into the environment, by seeping into the ground and ultimately the groundwater and running off the land into surrounding water bodies, are hard to monitor and manage. It is much easier to fix clean-up technology to the end of wastewater pipes emerging from, for example, food production factories and sewage treatment works that also release nitrogen and other chemicals to the environment. But ease of management does not correlate with contribution to overall loads, and on this basis the farming practices deserve the most attention.

Make no mistake, we all benefit from the higher food productivity that intensive agriculture has delivered. This is why we need an integrated approach to managing water quality that recognizes these complications and trade-offs.

That means for the Great Plains we need answers to the following kinds of questions. To what extent is it possible to develop farming practices in a way that ensures that the benefits we enjoy in terms of cleaner drinking water and more sustainable wildlife square with the costs to food production? Does it make more sense to invest more in the cleaning up of drinking water, recognizing that those who currently bear these costs may not have been directly responsible for the contamination in the first place? How does the management of point sources from sewage treatment works and factories fit in? As yet we do not know enough to provide convincing answers to these key questions. Studies are needed that not only identify what the contaminants are, where they are coming from, how they contribute to overall loads, and their likely adverse effects but also, and crucially, the benefit and cost consequences of any interventions. And as important will be ways to involve all stakeholders in finding solutions that seek to optimize the production of food and the quality of our water resources, both of which matter for sustainable development on the Great Plains.

Immigration in Nebraska