Assessing Institutional Ability to Support Adaptive, Integrated Water Resources Management

61 Pages Posted: 5 Jun 2013

See all articles by Christina Hoffman

Christina Hoffman

University of Nebraska at Lincoln - College of Law

Sandra B. Zellmer

University of Montana - Alexander Blewett III School of Law

Date Written: June 1, 2013


Institutions designed to manage water resources as they existed in the past are often ill equipped to address the challenges of today. In many ways, resource management institutions throughout the United States have become “prisoners of history,” which embody past rather than present, much less future, knowledge and necessity. Western water law, in particular, emerged at a time when water resources were seemingly ample, supplies were not fully allocated, and early territorial and state governments had limited administrative capabilities. Since then, domestic and agricultural demands have grown and, in many areas, outpaced available supplies, causing adverse consequences for social-ecological systems. Accordingly, the National Research Council declared that the “research agenda for the 21st century should give priority to developing new legal arrangements governing diversions and consumptive use that emphasize flexibility and facilitate the management of water scarcity.” Limitations in our ability to control supplies and respond to weather-related extremes by technical means, such as dams, canals, and other forms of large-scale infrastructure, combined with the need to deal with conflicting values, uncertainty, and changing environmental conditions, are stimulating more adaptive approaches in water resources management. Yet implementation of adaptive management has been spotty, in part because agencies are constrained by historic legal frameworks established to promote certainty and stability, and in part because of the inherent inertia of existing government institutions.

This article assesses whether water resource institutions can embrace flexibility and adaptation while maintaining the stability associated with existing legal frameworks and investment-backed expectations. Striking such a balance will require resource managers to identify and understand the problems faced by the social-ecologically linked system and to calibrate their strategies to address those problems, while ensuring accountability and enforceability, promoting focused learning that seeks and takes advantage of feedback loops, and securing sufficient funding for present and future actions.

At a time when many, if not all, western states are under pressure to redefine how water resources are managed, this article provides insight into how one state — Nebraska — has attempted to modify its water management institutions to implement more integrated approaches that embrace flexibility and adaptability. Nebraska has adopted a system that gives authority over groundwater resources to twenty-three local management districts, known as Natural Resources Districts (NRDs), while the state manages surface water resources. Recently, legislative revisions to the state’s water code have required greater cooperation between the NRDs and the state through basin-wide inventories and integrated management planning. We consider the merits of Nebraska’s approach, and examine whether such an approach can be used as a model for other western states under pressure to devise more holistic and adaptive approaches in managing water resources.

Keywords: Water Resources, adaptive management, prior appropriation, groundwater, institutions, social-ecologically linked systems

Suggested Citation

Hoffman, Christina and Zellmer, Sandra B., Assessing Institutional Ability to Support Adaptive, Integrated Water Resources Management (June 1, 2013). Nebraska Law Review, Vol. 91, No. 805, 2013, Available at SSRN:

Christina Hoffman

University of Nebraska at Lincoln - College of Law ( email )

103 McCollum Hall
P.O. Box 830902
Lincoln, NE 68583-0902
United States

Sandra B. Zellmer (Contact Author)

University of Montana - Alexander Blewett III School of Law ( email )

Missoula, MT 59812-0002
United States
406-243-6653 (Phone)


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