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“Water: Claiming Responsibility for our Common Wealth”

An hour wouldn’t even register on the vast scale of geological time…what is one hour compared to five billion years of history! But at a recent water conference in Ogallala, Nebraska, one hour with Jim Goeke made all the difference.

Dr. Goeke gave a keynote address to more than 90 people who gathered for a conference on “Water: Claiming Responsibility for our Common Wealth” held at Grey Goose Lodge off of Interstate 80 in Ogallala. Based on his work as a hydrogeologist at the University of Nebraska Research and Extension Center in North Platte, Goeke offered a wealth of information and insight to his presentation entitled, “The Northern Ogallala Aquifer: History and Hydrology”.

Armed with a myriad of slides to illustrate his points like the movement of global tectonic plates and the uplift of the Rocky Mountains 65 million years ago, Dr. Goeke educated the audience in a manner that was both understandable and mesmerizing. Using colorful graphs and charts, he explained how the High Plains-Ogallala Aquifer formed and became the lifeblood of agriculture in the region, while at the same time contributing mightily to major rivers of the Northern Plains: the Niobrara, the Platte, the Loup, and the Republican.

“The great myth is that we live in what people refer to as the Great American Desert…the reality is that the High Plains-Ogallala Aquifer, especially in Nebraska, reserves and releases an immense amount of groundwater that allows human societies and natural ecosystems to flourish,” Goeke pointed out. “Because of the Aquifer, Nebraska has some of the most full-flowing rivers in the world.”

Dr. Goeke’s presentation formed the baseline of the educational conference sponsored by Ogallala Commons, a resource network for community development in the High Plains-Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies a region stretching from White River, South Dakota to Midland Texas. A fundamental idea promoted by Ogallala Commons is the need to build a more cooperative approach to water resources by increasing public knowledge and responsibility, and by promoting creative, site-specific enterprises that can sustain local communities and ecosystems for the long-term.

“The commonwealth of water is not first of all a question of ownership, but rather, a question of belonging,” explained Darryl Birkenfeld, a part-time farmer and educator from Nazareth, Texas who serves as coordinator of Ogallala Commons. “Instead of dealing with water simply as a commodity that is owned, we focused on a deeper reality…that water belongs to us all, and that we belong to the water. The commonwealth of water means more than being able to use water…it also means that water is a gift that must be preserved and restored to benefit the entire community…both human and natural ecologies. When viewed as a commonwealth, water should enrich us, not impoverish us.”

The conference actually began Thursday evening with a local foods reception and a viewing of the Nebraska Public Television video, Fate of the Plains. The session on Friday morning began with an Opening Ceremony led by Lubbock, TX songwriter and poet Andy Wilkinson and Rushville, NE writer Deb Carpenter. As part of the ceremony, water brought from the five states of the northern Ogallala Aquifer was poured together into a large glass bowl, up to the half-full level, to symbolize that, on average, about half of the original amount of the world’s largest freshwater aquifer has already been consumed.

Short presentations by Robert Mailander and Linda Kleinschmit elaborated on examples of how the cooperative model and the commons have benefited communities in the past 50 years.

Workshops on Friday afternoon allowed participants to acquire valuable information and learn some of the practical and complex implications of treating water as a common wealth. The five workshops covered issues important to farmers, ranchers, management agencies, and interested citizens: drought mitigation and land management options, public and private water management, community economic development, public education and environmental advocacy, and water as a sacred commons. The conference also featured information tables, exhibit booths, and a list of books concerning water issues in the West.

To conclude the day, the final session of the conference focused on follow-up and action. Many conference attendees expressed their enthusiasm for further opportunities to gather regionally concerning the topic of water. Additional projects for Ogallala Commons that were announced were the formation of a women’s network, an agricultural alternatives conference in January, a community development fund, and a Playa Lakes Festival.

A conference for September 2004 on the topic of energy and its relationship to water was also announced. This meeting will be held in Wray, Colorado, and will target people who live in the states of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota. A second conference on water sponsored by Ogallala Commons and its partners will be held in the southern half of the High Plains region on February 7, 2004 in Nazareth, Texas.

Ogallala Commons, which operates under the auspices of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union-Cooperative Development Center, engaged a variety of organizations to sponsor the conferences. Other sponsors were the Center of Rural Affairs, Nebraska and Kansas Farmers Union, the Savory Center for Holisitic Management in Albuquerque, NM, Community Alliances of Interdependent AgriCulture (CAIA), Sandhills RC&D, Southwest Nebraska RC&D, Consolidated Companies, Inc., and CENEX/Harvest States Foundation. Building partnerships for education, cultural heritage, and incubating community business projects is core mission of Ogallala Commons. The network is guided by a Steering Committee consisting of representatives from the eight states of the Ogallala Aquifer region: Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Wyoming, and South Dakota. For more information or to make contact, people can visit the network’s website (www.ogallalacommons.org).

It will take more than a day to build a greater sense of responsibility for the commonwealth of water…especially in these droughty years when human needs clash with environmental requirements. But one hour of good information and a day of learning with fellow citizens can make a big difference, both in the short and long term. That is what Ogallala Commons and their partners are betting on.