Toward alignment of water users’ goals

Economy | Spring 2024
By Renata Rimšaitė, PhD

Depending on yields from rain-dependent agriculture in the U.S. and globally has become increasingly challenging over the last few decades. Precipitation patterns are now more variable. Drier and warmer weather conditions have been shifting east toward agricultural regions, traditionally not dependent on irrigation. To compensate for hydrological stress in agriculture, using more supplemental irrigation is likely. Demands for different water uses, like domestic use or for environmental protection, will also grow in these areas, causing various sustainable water use concerns. Consequentially, it is reasonable to expect an increase in disputes between different water users, especially if institutions capable of addressing water availability concerns are lacking.

For the most part, stronger water governance is needed in the U.S. regions where agricultural production has been predominantly rainfed. Due to historical water abundance, the need for water use reporting, monitoring and enforcement hasn’t been justified for a long time. However, local hydrologic conditions have already changed in many of those regions, demanding guidance toward meeting sustainable water use goals across different sectors.


For the most part, stronger water governance is needed in the U.S. regions where agricultural production has been predominantly rainfed.


On the regulatory side, water managing agencies are often tasked to design regulatory tools driven by conservation and environmental goals recognized by federal and state mandates or interstate agreements. Regulatory frameworks best suited for success allow for adaptation to changing local conditions. Such regulatory rules set firm boundaries needed to achieve specified goals but provide enough flexibility for farmers to make individual decisions toward lower production risks. Of course, it is easier said than done. As an example, let’s look at water use quotas, often called “water allocation systems,” which are a common regulatory tool used to limit groundwater withdrawals to meet mandated conservation or environmental goals.

Water allocations control how much water can be pumped through one well over a certain time length (often varies between 1-5 years). Depending on its design, the allocation tool alone could cause harm to growers by preventing them from applying enough water for crops during a dry growing season.

However, adjustments can be added to that tool, allowing farmers to have flexibility in managing water for their operations while meeting the same target conservation or environmental goals. These adjustments lie in the rules specifying the amount of the allocation, the duration of the allocation, the ability to transfer unused amounts to the following allocation period and the penalty design for exceeding the allocation. Designing these local context-dependent rules is a complex and difficult but important process.

On the collaborative side, it is exciting to see the environmental and agricultural sectors working together to benefit from aligning their goals related to water management. The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, for example has been working to improve land and water conditions for several species identified as endangered or threatened by the federal Endangered Species Act. Governed by a variety of government representatives and private stakeholders from Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming, the program seeks to achieve its goals by using nonregulatory approaches. This often means partnering with agricultural water managing agencies and individual farmers. One of their approaches is working with local producers who can benefit by temporarily transferring their water to the program for financial compensation. Successes associated with local water transfers also depend on the regulatory framework design within which they are implemented.

As weather patterns continue to shift, we will need to shift our solutions framework as well to focus on addressing the goals of multiple water users. Examples discussed in this article demonstrate how, through creative collaboration, it is possible to benefit many stakeholders.

Renata Rimšaitė, PhD, is a senior program manager for the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska. Views or opinions expressed in this column do not represent her employer.
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