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Socio-environmental drought response in a mixed urban-agricultural setting: synthesizing biophysical and governance responses in the Platte River Watershed, Nebraska, USA

Samuel C. Zipper, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Victoria, Victoria BC, Canada; Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill University, Montreal QC, Canada
Kelly Helm Smith, National Drought Mitigation Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln NE, USA
Betsy Breyer, Department of Geography and Geographic Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana IL, USA
Jiangxiao Qiu, School of Forest Resources and Conservation, Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, University of Florida, Davie FL, USA
Anthony Kung, International WaterCentre, Brisbane QLD, Australia; University of Queensland, Brisbane QLD, Australia
Dustin Herrmann, Environmental Studies Program, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati OH, USA


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Ensuring global food and water security requires a detailed understanding of how coupled socio-environmental systems respond to drought. Using the Platte River Watershed in Nebraska (USA) as an exemplar mixed urban-agricultural watershed, we quantify biophysical response to drought in urban (Lincoln NE) and agricultural systems alongside a qualitative analysis of governance response and adaptive capacity of both sectors. Synthesis of results highlights parallels and discontinuities between urban and agricultural preparations for and response to drought. Whereas drought prompted an increase in well installations and expansion of water-intensive crops, e.g., corn, in the agricultural sector, outdoor water use restrictions rapidly curtailed water withdrawals in the urban sector, where water conservation has gradually decoupled total withdrawals from population growth. Water governance institutions at the municipal, district, and statewide levels showed evidence of learning and adaptive management, facilitated by a shared regional identity around agriculture. We conclude that, rather than exacerbating intersectoral conflict, cities may introduce a high-value and flexible water use that can be rapidly curtailed during drought. The ability to rapidly reduce urban water use and thereby avoid limiting agricultural irrigation during drought enables cities to provide adaptive capacity in mixed urban-agricultural watersheds, particularly where crops are highly reliant on irrigation.

Key words

agricultural water management; drought; irrigation; socio-environmental systems; urban water use; water policy

Copyright © 2017 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087