A socio-hydrological framework for assessing groundwater sustainability in an irrigated agricultural landscape.

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2021: $14,820.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Southern Illinois University
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Ruopu Li
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale


No commodities identified


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Proposal abstract:

Groundwater irrigation has been regarded as critical to the sustenance of agricultural production in the U.S. Midwest. Due to continuous extraction, many agricultural regions with heavy reliance on groundwater irrigation have witnessed substantial drawdown or depletion of groundwater reservoirs. To develop effective coping strategies, it is critical to have a thorough understanding of the groundwater system and its interaction with groundwater users and future challenges such as climate variability and change.  Thus, this project aims to develop a socio-hydrological modeling framework for examining the sustainability of aquifers in irrigation agricultural landscapes and evaluating potential solutions to improve resilience in a changing climate.


This project will develop a transferrable modeling framework that can: (1) characterize both hydrologic dynamics and producers’ irrigation behaviors, (2) integrate hydrologic and social-behavioral models to represent the integrated system dynamics, and (3) evaluate groundwater sustainability under future climate scenarios. The modeling framework will couple (a) an agent-based model (ABM) for simulating irrigation behaviors in response to physical constraints and hydrological models for characterizing surface processes and groundwater dynamics. Such a framework can be used to examine the interactions between human and water systems with incomplete or ambiguous information on irrigation decision making. The ABM allows the representation of complex decision-making processes by defining collective actions using predefined behavioral rules. Using a Central Platte River basin as the testbed, the Cooperative Hydrology Study (COHYST) groundwater model and a Soil & Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) model developed by the applicant will be utilized to simulate groundwater storage dynamics and to model groundwater recharge rate at different spatial and temporal scales. The ABM shall then be coupled with the hydrologic models to represent the integrated system dynamics. The project is expected to produce outcomes that will be critical to sustainable agriculture in the North Central Region. The expected outcomes encompass tools and information that will help increase awareness, change attitudes, and inform decisions and policies in groundwater management and sustainability. It will improve the understanding of the effects of potential agricultural and water management options on groundwater storage, and allow a better design of intervention strategies to mitigate foreseeable climate impacts on groundwater depletion.

Project objectives from proposal:

The project outcomes include (1) the critical information that links producers’ irrigation behaviors to the prospect of groundwater sustainability, and (2) a new decision-making tool that allows natural resources agencies to evaluate the impact of future climate and the effectiveness of groundwater management options. First, we expect the producers to increase their awareness of risks to groundwater sustainability imposed by unrestrictive pumping activities and future climate change. Using a range of project dissemination avenues (e.g., local board meetings, flyers, farming group emails, and social media), we expect to change the perception and attitudes of producers towards groundwater resources: from an unlimited reservoir to a limited and vulnerable resource that requires proactive protection.  Second, we expect the state and regional natural resources agencies to use the modeling framework as a tool to inform water management options and intervention strategies to mitigate groundwater depletion. Our project findings are expected to facilitate more effective science-based policies to maximize the crop production benefits while allow sustainable water use over short and long terms. This will result in shared groundwater sustainability goals of different conservation programs and policies being put in place for the North Central region.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.