Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation

Beyond random acts of conservation : an institutional analysis of the Natural Resource Conservation Service's Agricultural Water Enhancement Program

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  • Irrigated agriculture accounts for 90 percent of consumptive use of freshwater in the western US and is considered the largest contributor to nonpoint source water pollution. The diffuse nature of most water quality and quantity challenges necessitates institutions that can more effectively engage agricultural producers in strategic, integrated, watershed-scale approaches to water management such as those associated with Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM). With approximately 9,400 professionals working in nearly every one of the nation's 3,071 counties and an emphasis on voluntary, incentives-based approaches to conservation, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is well poised to influence land and water management on private working lands. NRCS conservation programs, however, have been criticized as "random acts of conservation" that lack a strategic vision for addressing natural resource challenges at-scale. Using NRCS's new Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) as a case study, this paper seeks to examine the factors that enable or inhibit NRCS from promoting an integrated approach to water management consistent with IWRM principles. Following the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework this paper traces the development of AWEP and examines how the rules established at the national level impact implementation at the national, state and local levels. The paper then evaluates AWEP based on a set of six IWRM design principles to determine (a) the extent to which AWEP represents an IWRM approach, and (b) the institutional factors that facilitate or inhibit NRCS from taking a more integrated approach to water management. I found that institutional factors vary greatly between levels of analysis depending on the specific context, but did identify several consistent enablers and barriers. The three most significant factors that facilitate an IWRM approach are: (1) AWEP's focus on priority resource concerns within a defined hydrographic area; (2) AWEP's emphasis on pursuing a partnership-based approach; and (3) increased local involvement in defining projects. The three most significant factors that inhibit an IWRM approach are: (1) a lack of clarity concerning partner roles and responsibilities and constraints on partner involvement; (2) limited flexibility of existing program rules; and (3) limited local capacity to engage with landowners and implement projects. The paper offers institutional recommendations for facilitating an IWRM approach within NRCS, and concludes with a consideration of the utility of IWRM design principles and the IAD framework for analyzing water management institutions.
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