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IWRA 2020 Online Conference - Addressing Groundwater Resilience under Climate Change
THEME 4. Groundwater Governance, Management and Policy
Author(s): Gregory Sixt, Ashley C McCarthy, Kent E. Portney, Timothy S. Griffin

Gregory Sixt 1, Ashley C McCarthy 2 , Kent E. Portney 3 , Timothy S. Griffin 2
1 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J WAFS)
2 Tufts University, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
3 Texas A&M University, George H. W. Bush School of Government and Public Service

Keyword(s): polycentric governance, nested regimes, local governance, groundwater, Water Diplomacy


The High Plains Aquifer, which underlies parts of eight U.S. states, is one of the largest groundwater systems in the world. Water from the aquifer is vitally important to both the agriculture-based economies and rural communities in this region and to global markets that rely on agricultural goods produced there. Groundwater withdrawn from the aquifer generates more than $7 billion in crop production annually and supports about 20% of the corn, cotton, cattle, and wheat produced in the U.S. each year. Yet, declining groundwater in much of the aquifer endangers the long-term economic and ecological viability of the region. The effects of climate change are likely to exacerbate this situation.

Different states in the region have pursued varying paths to governing the use of groundwater, with varying degrees of success towards sustainability. The nascent field of Water Diplomacy provides a useful lens through which to evaluate the governance institutions that different states have put in place to achieve groundwater sustainability. The High Plains Aquifer presents a useful case to further the conversation on Water Diplomacy as a discipline and its application to different water governance situations. We look at the states of Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas to identify the extent to which U.S. state-level groundwater governance institutions possess the principles needed for Water Diplomacy solutions. The research draws upon the work of Elinor Ostrom and applies her principles for governing sustainable common-pool resources. Nebraska’s groundwater governance regime demonstrates that a groundwater governance system built around Water Diplomacy principles can create adaptive, collaboratively managed governance institutions for the sustainable management of groundwater.

We enrich this analysis further with additional research utilizing the Social Ecological Systems framework to look more closely at how Nebraska’s groundwater governance regime has adapted over time to address emerging groundwater quality issues. We find that Nebraska’s polycentric, locally empowered groundwater governance regime has created the enabling conditions for adaptive, collaborative governance that positions the state well to address emerging groundwater quantity and quality challenges, including those posed by climate change. The research presents generalizable aspects of the governance regime that are applicable to other groundwater governance systems.


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