Nebraska’s Groundwater Story Splashes Globally

Peter McCornick
Agricultural Systems and Natural Resource Systems Influencing One Another: A Crossover between Health, Soil, Climate, Water, Geology and Management

Nebraska’s Groundwater Story Splashes Globally

DWFI Stresses the Importance of Sustainable Water Resources Management

Bethany Karlberg
Interview with Peter McCornick by Bethany Karlberg

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the world will need to provide enough food and water for nearly 10 billion people by 2050. This will require developing countries to almost double their crop production. Peter McCornick, executive director of Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute (DWFI) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the United States can help developing countries close that food production gap through more efficient and effective use of water in agriculture. 

Groundwater management is essential to sustainable water use for the production of food and Nebraska has been a leader in this area for years, according to McCornick. 

“Nebraska’s story is an excellent example for how you can develop groundwater and develop it in a way that is sustainable,” McCornick said. 

McCornick’s role is to lead the strategic vision of DWFI and collaborate with their partners.  Building on Nebraska’s water resources management expertise, DWFI is pursuing innovative research and policy development to advance understanding of water management and improve food production around the world. 

Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute

Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute was established at the University of Nebraska through a gift from the Robert B. Daugherty Foundation in 2010. Robert B. Daugherty was the founder of Valmont Industries and led the commercialization of center-pivot irrigation. Mr. Daugherty’s vision was to create a research institute that would harness Nebraska’s vast expertise in agriculture, water management and natural resources systems to achieve water and food security for our growing world. 

DWFI leverages the University of Nebraska’s knowledge leadership and extends it through strong local and international partnerships with other universities, businesses, non-governmental organizations and foundations, and government agencies. It works through research and policy development, provides education and communication to enhance knowledge, builds capacity and develops effective techniques to sustainably manage water and increase food security. DWFI’s impact is achieved through the work of 120 Faculty Fellows from all four University of Nebraska campuses, associate fellows, post-doctoral researchers and students in wide variety of fields who pursue projects focused on increasing water and agricultural productivity. 

To maximize the expertise of its staff and Faculty Fellows, DWFI focuses its research in five key areas:

  1. Closing water and agricultural productivity gaps
  2. Improving groundwater management for agricultural production
  3. Enhancing high productivity agriculture
  4. Supporting freshwater and agricultural ecosystems and public health
  5. Managing agricultural drought, focusing on drought monitoring and mitigation across all other research areas.

“With the water that’s available, whether it’s in the soil, in the rivers, in the ground or from the rainfall, managing that water is key to resilient food systems,” McCornick said. “Resilience is at the center of what we do.”

McCornick said agricultural producers are stewards of the landscape and water, while community leaders, researchers and decision-makers all contribute to sustainable water resource management. 

A Glance into Nebraska’s Story

McCornick said Nebraska’s water management “story” includes three major areas: 1) the development of technology, such as wells and center pivots, 2) the specific groundwater management system and 3) supporting the investment of farmers into agriculture. 

First, with one of the largest aquifers in the country and the world’s largest center pivot companies located in Nebraska, the state’s farmers, water managers and policymakers understand the importance of creating a resilient water resources management system. According to McCornick, a center pivot irrigation system allows the farmer to become more resilient against droughts. The center pivot provides a drought-mitigation solution by creating access to the groundwater below, so a farmer does not have to solely rely on rain to water the crops.

 Second, McCornick explained that Nebraska has developed an effective and quite unique governance approach to water through Natural Resource Districts (NRDs), which manage groundwater locally. Nebraska is a large state with vastly diverse water needs depending on location. For this reason, the state is divided into 23 different NRDs, which have supported Nebraska’s successful water management. The success stems from each NRD having the ability to set its own water regulations according to the needs of the area. Other parts of the world are now beginning to recognize the importance of local governance. While water and agricultural needs vary in different parts of the world and understanding the local context is the most vital aspect of water management, according to McCornick, there are important lessons to be drawn from Nebraska’s experience. 

Third, McCornick said farmers lead the water-to-food transformation, using water systems to nourish crops and grow the food source. Creating a resilient groundwater management system is a fundamental step, but farmers are the ones who plant and grow the actual crop, which eventually becomes the food that consumers purchase at their local grocery store or market. Helping farmers improve their resilience to water fluctuations and maximize yields is a win-win situation for the farmer, consumers and the environment. 

McCornick experienced the success of Nebraska groundwater management before he moved to the state in 2016. In the mid-1980s, McCornick had worked in eastern Colorado where residents were concerned about the groundwater levels in the Ogallala dropping rapidly.  When he first visited Nebraska in 2009, he was surprised to find that Nebraskans had figured out how to expand and intensify agriculture, and do so with less water and a stable water resources system. 

DWFI focuses on translating the success of Nebraska’s story to other parts of the world. According to McCornick, while most Nebraskans understand the value of groundwater and water management, beyond the state it they are not as well known. 

‘Boots on the Ground’

 Nebraska has a lot to share with — and learn from — other countries. “We tend to have global ideals that don’t always translate well into various local conditions,” McCornick said. 

To address this, DWFI employees work with partners in other states and countries to learn the local conditions and understand the specific challenges farmers face. From there, DWFI works with partners to develop solutions specific to the local issues. 

One area DWFI has been working in is northeast Brazil. This region has a groundwater resource larger than the Ogallala Aquifer formation of the High Plains Aquifer in Nebraska, but Brazilians have not yet made the investments or institutional capacity to ensure the aquifer is sustained. There are many political, institutional, social, environmental and management issues that need to be considered.  

DWFI’s aim is to support local communities, universities, farmers groups, and other leaders in this part of Brazil to evaluate their water resources and determine how best use it without damaging or diminishing the resource. 

“The impact is still a few years away, but the developments are very encouraging,” McCornick said. “It really comes from our Brazilian colleagues recognizing the importance of the Nebraska experience.” 

Working with Brazil is only one example of DWFI’s meaningful work. 

“It’s very important from the Nebraska perspective to understand that what has been learned here is of considerable value in avoiding irreparable damage to important water resources systems in other parts of the world,” McCornick said. 

Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute is capitalizing on Nebraska’s groundwater management knowledge and agricultural expertise to achieve sustainable water resources for food production. Attaining this goal is critical to producing enough food for the future. According to McCornick, while regulations are often viewed as essential pre-requisite for effective water management, building trust within the local communities and working collaboratively through organizations, such as the Natural Resources Districts here in Nebraska, have proven to be effective.