UNL Water Center Addresses Quality, Quantity, Sustainability Issues

UNL Water Center Addresses Quality, Quantity, Sustainability Issues

By Mary Garbacz

"Nebraska is unusual because we're number one in the nation in the amount of irrigation that comes from groundwater sources," said Bruce Dvorak, interim director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Water Center. Yet, when Nebraskans talk about water, residents of the central and western part of the state often look at the whole spectrum of water issues, while many residents of the eastern part of the state mainly consider water used at home. "I think a lot of people in the eastern part of the state take water for granted," Dvorak said. In Nebraska, only about three percent of water is used by public water supplies and domestic wells; the rest is used in irrigation and by industry.

A UNL professor of civil engineering, Dvorak has a special interest in drinking water and sustainability issues and in the research and extension efforts related to those issues.

"Obviously, water is very important throughout the country. We all need to drink water, but it's also very important for the economy here in Nebraska," Dvorak said. Nebraska relies on irrigation to produce agricultural crops and for urban horticulture; industry relies on water as a cooling source; and water is used to generate hydroelectric power. Additionally, water is necessary in streams for fish, birds and other wildlife, he said.

"There are a lot of reasons water is important and a lot of reasons water research is important to help support those various uses and help improve both quantity and quality," Dvorak said.

The Water Center serves a broad mission and addresses the science and engineering of the quantity and quality of water, as well as the management and laws and policies related to water. The Water Center is one of 54 centers established by federal mandate more than 45 years ago. Dvorak said the centers were established in each U.S. state and territory for three main purposes: 1) to provide a place for competent research to expand the understanding of water and to address water problems; 2) to aid the entry of new water scientists, engineers and managers into the field of water study; and to communicate results of the research to water managers and to the public.

Nebraska's Water Situation

Nebraska is unique because of the large groundwater supply provided by the Ogallala Aquifer, Dvorak said. "And that groundwater is of really high quality, so we're fortunate. A very large amount of our water is from groundwater sources; in Nebraska, over 80 percent of our citizenry gets their drinking water from groundwater." Also unusual, he said, is that almost half of Nebraskans are drinking groundwater supplies that have little or no treatment because the quality is so high. Dvorak said the aquifer provides some extra treatment and means many of the issues of national concern - such as various contaminants - are less of a problem in Nebraska's public water and domestic water supplies.

Bruce Dvorak

Limited Water, New Laws

However, the amount of available water is limited. If we're not careful, Dvorak said, we'll start seeing more rivers and wells going dry, so that vision of the future has led to competition and concern. From a law standpoint, regulations are being developed to address competing interests, he said, balancing agricultural water use with other uses. "Many of our laws are based on outdated science. Many laws were developed 60 to 90 years ago when we did not understand the hydrology and the water cycle the way we understand today," he said. "Now, we understand an awful lot more about the science, and we're experiencing some climate variability," he added. Better knowledge of science has changed the way land is used and that has changed water usage. Conservation techniques such as no-till agriculture and efforts to protect the soil by reducing nonpoint source pollution have resulted in reduced river flow in some areas of the state, affecting contractual obligations to provide water to other states.

Sustainability, Pollution, Climate Variability...and Us

Above all, Dvorak believes a definition for "sustainable" will help to determine the future of water policy and law as scientists obtain a better understanding of science related to climate variability, drought and potentially, climate change. He expects there will be more discussion about both rural and urban nonpoint source nutrient pollution that will be particularly focused on the eastern third of Nebraska. He also expects more discussion related to micro-contaminants, including more scientific information on potential risks, adding that as a society, we are becoming more concerned about smaller and smaller risks. "I anticipate there'll probably be discussion related to that, both research and policy and public discussion about what level of risk we're willing to accept," he said.

The future will emphasize working with the state's economic systems to try to reduce water use without affecting production, he said, citing a recent UNL research project that has been shown to save two inches of water in each field to produce the same number of bushels per acre.

But Dvorak believes one of the biggest challenges in the next decade will be convincing people to put the science into use. "We have all this good science, we have great technologies, but the next challenge is what I call the human dimension," he said, including having public policy and economic incentives in place as well as understanding the sociology of the way people use water.

"Nationally, internationally it is well understood that although there's a need for more science and technology research, there's also a real need to understand the human interactions with that science and technology so we can actually have it applied," he said.