Nick Brozovic, Ph.D., director of policy, Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is the giving the keynote presentation, “Technology and Innovation in Agricultural Groundwater Management” at the upcoming Groundwater and Agriculture: Meeting the Demands While Protecting Resources workshop, October 2-3 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Brozovic is also an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and recently shared his insights on technology and agricultural groundwater management.
NGWA: How did you get interested in groundwater and its connection to food?
Brozovic: I was in California working towards a Ph.D. in geology and doing research on fire-flood cycles, debris flows, and hillslope evolution on million-year timescales. I became very interested in the public policy around natural resource and hazard management, so I began looking around for a research topic with human decision-making and a shorter time horizon.
It’s hard to work on natural resources in California and not get involved with water and food security. I was fortunate to meet some economics professors who were studying policies for managing seawater intrusion in coastal aquifers. At the time, they were looking for students who had more background in hydrology than typical economics students. The professors became my advisors, and it worked out really well for me. I’ve studied groundwater management for food security ever since, and I still really enjoy the topic.
NGWA: You have an unusual educational background in geology and agricultural economics. What unique perspectives does that bring to you on groundwater resource issues?
Brozovic: Perhaps surprisingly, there are actually a few other economists around with geology or hydrology backgrounds. This combination has helped me in several ways.
First, I work a lot with environmental engineers and hydrologists, and I’d like to think that I have a basic understanding of their work (although they may disagree). In turn, I hope this makes my economic and policy analysis better as I try hard not to make completely unrealistic assumptions.
Second, as a geologist, I always loved fieldwork, and that’s carried over into my current position. I still try to spend time in the field learning from as many people as I can about their experiences and the things they’ve tried to manage water better. It’s great to visit farmers, water managers, and irrigation projects, whether in Nebraska or in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Finally, I spent a lot of my field time as a geologist in the United Kingdom, where the quantity of outcrop was very limited and was almost always covered in lichen. You must be very comfortable with uncertainty — and have an active imagination — to do field mapping in the UK.
NGWA: What are your primary research interests at the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute?
Brozovic: At the Water for Food Institute, my title is “director of policy”. I’m also a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I work to ensure that the institute’s programs inform public and private sector needs around agricultural water management. In addition, I have a teaching appointment and oversee the institute’s innovation and entrepreneurship programs. I do research on topics such as the evaluation of policies and governance structures for water management and on agricultural technology innovation and business models.
On the groundwater policy side, I do a lot of work trying to understand what kind of policies have worked to address issues around groundwater use, how the policies were implemented, and how lessons can be transferred to other places. I try to model the cost-effectiveness of different kinds of policies that can have the same physical result but very different outcomes and acceptability for water users. I also work on monitoring and enforcement of policies, and, in particular, understanding how people try to cheat water management systems, and how to make this less likely.
On the innovation and entrepreneurship side, I work with startups on market research and to help test or codevelop new technologies. At the institute, we also do some of our own hardware and software development in the area of agricultural water use.
My work spans from settings with very large, well-capitalized agribusiness operations to ones with subsistence farmers. Currently, I’m working on projects in the High Plains region across the United States and internationally in countries such as Rwanda and Nepal.
NGWA: Tell us about your work on groundwater markets and what potential you see for them in the Midwest.
Brozovic: My work on water markets has been some of the most fun I’ve had. Water markets are a voluntary tool for reallocating water to increase its value in use. They are often viewed as controversial and there are many misconceptions about water markets, even among the experts who study them. For example, a lot of people don’t realize that the oldest recorded water markets have operated continuously for more than 1,000 years in the Middle East!
My work on water markets has gone from very technical academic work to applied work. Based on my research, and with a former student, I cofounded a company called Mammoth Trading, which specializes in water market design and implementation. The company established the first smart markets based on algorithmic trading rules for groundwater trading.
In the Midwest, I think there’s a lot of potential for groundwater markets. Water trading can really help mitigate impacts during droughts. In fact, there is already a fair amount of trading activity happening, but people don’t realize it.
NGWA: Your talk is on “Technology and Innovation in Agricultural Groundwater Management.” What do you see as the most promising innovations to control groundwater pollution from agricultural activities?
Brozovic: When you look at the water management landscape, a lot of companies are trying to sell technological solutions that have been beautifully engineered rather than understanding their customers’ problems and how to solve these at lowest cost. So often the value propositions of innovations are unclear.
Within agriculture, cellular connectivity can be poor and the cost of getting data from sensors in the field can be prohibitive to technology adoption. Technologies such as LoRa can be helpful for data transfer from field to cloud and will roll out over the next few years. Another trend we’re seeing is attempts to manage field-level water use from space with remote sensing. This is seen as a way of avoiding or reducing the need to check compliance on the ground and the conflict that this can bring. While there is some promise in these approaches, there is also more uncertainty in models than is usually acknowledged by providers. This uncertainty creates potential legal, economic, and environmental issues that to my mind haven’t been thought through fully yet.
In my talk, I’ll talk about challenges and opportunities for technology in agricultural groundwater management, as well as sharing some of my own (sometimes painful) experiences in trying to push the envelope on innovation.
NGWA thanks Brozovic for his time in answering these questions and in being the keynote presenter at the Groundwater and Agriculture: Meeting the Demands While Protecting Resources workshop.