Ann Bleed came to Nebraska from New York in 1972. With a PHD in ecology and additional degrees in water resources and civil engineering, in 1988 she was hired by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. Her views on water were shaped during her more than 20 year tenure, holding positions including director and state hydrologist and by her participation on negotiations for two interstate litigation cases.
If you’d asked me 40 years ago, is water valuable to people? I would have said yes. It’s obvious. But the depth to which people care and the various ways in which they care…. dealing with water issues then becomes extremely difficult. You very often have to ask not what the legalities are but what is your basic interest in this water supply? Why do you want it?
When you’re in the east, a river’s big. It flows a lot of water. It’s deep. When I came here and saw what they called rivers, I thought, wait a minute, that’s just a creek!
I now have much better understanding of all the demands for water.
The Endangered Species Act passed in early 70s, there several parts of it. So the fish and wildlife said the whooping crane is endangered and they first wanted to actually start a refuge along the Platte which would be owned by the Fish and Wildlife Service and that went absolutely nowhere with Nebraskans. No way did they want to give up that land. So they started saying well, we’re gonna regulate all the water uses on the Platte for the endangered species.
The Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs, which serve a lot of land in Nebraska as well as in Wyoming and Colorado, they were saying you’re gonna have to re-operate your reservoirs.
Then Lake McConaughy needed to renew their license. And they spent millions of dollars litigating and realized this is going nowhere. And I think everybody realized litigation is just gridlock. It isn’t gonna work. And nothing was happening on the river.
So the three states and the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation signed a memorandum of agreement to try to come to some kind of negotiation on the Platte.
And that was a very interesting process because over months of negotiations, we got to know each other very well. And we learned to trust each other. And I can’t tell you how important that trust was.
Certainly it was difficult being a woman! Very often I was the only woman in the room. But I think the only time that being a woman was absolutely valuable was when there were other women in the room particularly farmer’s wives who were sitting there not saying anything. And I wanted to know what they were thinking because very often they are full partner.
Other than that it was more a hindrance. There were times when we were in negotiating team when we’d take a potty break. And I’d go into the women’s room and come out and time would start passing. Well, they were negotiating in the men’s room! And of course I wasn’t there! I protested.
We fought for a fair amount of time over what the species requirements for water would be. There was absolutely no agreement and the reality is nobody knows. So we adopted an approach called adaptive management. We’re going to agree that we don’t really understand what the species needs. We’ll do some tests on the river, try to find it out, and then, hopefully come to an agreement on what they do need.
You can pass laws, you can try to get people to do what they need to do in your view by regulation. But in general that doesn’t work too well. It’s a good backup.
But sitting down and talking with people, getting to understand what their interest is, and collaborating with them to try and come up with an answer…. I think that way of working, is gonna be incredibly important as we move into the future with climate change. Because it does allow you to have adaptive management. Laws are pretty rigid. If you can negotiate an agreement and the ability to change the agreement and collaborate with people who are impacted, that is going to be very important.
I think more than ever I realize that water is used for many, many aspects of life, that people care greatly about water. It’s valuable not only because you need it to drink or to grow crops, but it’s their lifestyle they’re fighting for in many situations. Without that water, they don’t have a farm.
So it’s a highly valuable and meaningful commodity.
Music excerpted in this piece is “Air Hockey Saloon” by Chris Zabriskie (Creative Commons license) and “Lifted by You” by Filip Fejtl (De Wolfe Music).
Voices of the Platte is a collaboration between Platte Basin Timelapse and NET Radio’s Humanities Desk. These audio essays have been edited for length and clarity.