Ogallala Aquifer.jpeg

Interested parties from across the High Plains and even as far as California gathered via Zoom on Feb. 24 and 25 for the virtual Ogallala Aquifer Summit to discuss what the future holds for the water source and what agriculture can do today to influence the outcome. (Journal photo by Lacey Newlin.)

Interested parties from across the High Plains and even as far as California, gathered via Zoom on Feb. 24 and 25 for the virtual Ogallala Aquifer Summit, to discuss what the future holds for the water source and what agriculture can do today to influence the outlook. John Tracy, director of the Texas Water Resource Institute at Texas A&M University, gave the kick-off keynote with a breakdown of tough water questions.

“When land goes into agricultural production or goes from irrigation to dryland, there are all these factors driving the change in land use, which is very impactful, not just on a physical environment and the agricultural economy, but also all of the citizens we’ve been reaching,” Tracy said. “I started to think about what is driving these changes and as water becomes less available in the aquifer, that obviously means land could go out of production, but then I started looking at the imagery of the Ogallala Aquifer over the years and realized there is a whole lot more going on here than simply talking about water becoming more expensive.”

Tracy said these changes in land use have been driven by technological elimination, financial and economic conditions and changing physical and social values in the region. These factors continue to drive change in the region and there will probably be additional factors to identify in the future that drive this change.

Tracy said too often we think we need to adapt to change, but there is a field of study referred to as change management, which refers to approaches to prepare, support, and help individuals, teams, and organizations in making organizational change. When we look at how we manage change, there is actually a spectrum of how individuals and institutions manage change. The spectrum goes from resist the change to incident response to adaptive management. In adaptive management, people do not try to resist change they talk about driving the change.

“We see the change coming and then try to affect what is changing rather than just simply responding to what’s happening,” Tracy said. “When we look across the Ogallala region, we realize individuals, institutions and communities are using a wide range of these approaches and the vast majority are still working with the incident response method. Some are actually engaging in much more proactive adaptive management, but I will tell you the narrative within the research communities still falls back into incident response.

“The dominant conversation we have for why we’re doing this research, both within the basin and external to the basin, comes down to the fact that the Ogallala is going to run out of water and what are we going to do then? It’s an incident we’re responding to, not something we’re just saying. The Ogallala has changed over the last 100 years and it’s going to continue to change, how are we going to embrace that and decide what we want rather than just responding to what’s happening to us right now.”

Tracy said most of the academic community he has talked to would embrace moving to an adaptive management approach across the entire basin, but there are two important factors that have to come into play to be able to do this and pave the way for the academic community engage in this approach. The first is continued outreach and engagement of the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project to ensure it is a productive and transparent dialogue of stakeholders for the entire aquifer.

“The reason this is so important is that this helps develop a common understanding between stakeholders, Extension and research communities on the actual issues that reach this basin,” Tracy said.

The second thing that needs to happen to really move the academic community into being much more engaged in adaptive management is rethinking the role academia plays in the aquifer.

“Every proposal starts off with ‘the Ogallala is running out of water, we’re going to look at this and find some information to help us solve this problem,’” Tracy explained. “If we continue to try to solve the problem we will never get out in front of it. We will just simply solve a problem and respond to the next problem. We need to realize that the changes occurring in the Ogallala, whether they’re changes occurring due to declining ground water levels, climate change or population shifts, they are not a problem to be solved.”

Tracy said these are situations to be managed, which is the heart of adaptive management.

“We will not solve the problem, we will simply help manage the situation,” he said. “If we can move into that mindset, we realize that we’re going to be in this for the long haul and we’ll be continuing to manage the situation, but we’re going to gear our programs to help people get out in front of these situations and provide information and resources to help manage them and drive the change people within the entire region would like to see.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 620-227-1871 or lnewlin@hpj.com.

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