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Nebraska’s Natural Resource District system: Collaborative approaches to adaptive groundwater quality governance

Gregory N. Sixt
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab; and (at the time of research) Tufts University, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy – Agriculture, Food and Environment Program, Boston, MA, USA; gnsixt@gmail.com

Laurens Klerkx
Wageningen University, Knowledge Technology and Innovation Group, Wageningen, The Netherlands; laurens.klerkx@wur.nl

J. David Aiken
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Agricultural Economics, Lincoln, NE, USA; daiken@unl.edu

Timothy S. Griffin
Tufts University, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy – Agriculture, Food and Environment Program, Boston, MA, USA; timothy.griffin@tufts.edu

ABSTRACT: Nonpoint source pollution of groundwater by nitrates from agricultural activity is a persistent problem for which developing effective policy approaches has proven difficult. There is little empirical information on forms of governance or regime attributes that effectively and sustainably address agricultural nonpoint source pollution of groundwater. Nebraska’s Natural Resource District (NRD) system is a rare example of a groundwater governance regime that is putting programmes in place that are likely to generate sustainable groundwater quality outcomes. We focus on three groundwater nitrate management programmes in the state that collectively represent the broader NRD system. The research shows that four elements of Nebraska’s groundwater governance regime are fundamental to its success in addressing groundwater nitrates: 1) the local nature of governance, which builds trust among stakeholders; 2) the significant authority granted to the local districts by the state, allowing for the development of locally tailored solutions; 3) the collaborative governance approach, which allows potential scale imbalances to be overcome; and 4) the taxing authority granted to NRDs, which enables them to fund locally tailored management solutions. We find that these aspects of the NRD system have created conditions that enable adaptive, collaborative governance that positions the state well to address emerging groundwater quality challenges. We present aspects of the governance regime that are generalisable to other American states as efforts to address nitrate pollution in groundwater increase.

KEYWORDS: Groundwater quality, local governance, nested regimes, nonpoint source pollution, polycentric governance, Nebraska, USA