Rural Prosperity Nebraska, Oklahoma State team up to study rural resilience

A grain truck crosses the dry Platte River near Chapman, Nebraska, in October 2022. The area around Chapman is in severe and extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. (Photo by Craig Chandler, University Communication and Marketing.)

Water is the lifeblood for many rural communities, yet more than half of the United States is currently experiencing drought conditions. While water usage varies—from residential needs to irrigation and livestock demands—many communities’ access to clean, dependable water is threatened by changing land management and climate. 

These ongoing changes may disproportionally impact rural communities, but the majority of climate resilience research focuses on urban areas. Researchers with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Rural Prosperity Nebraska initiative and Oklahoma State University are planning to change that. 

Through a new award from the National Science Foundation, the researchers are launching a project called Rural Confluence to address climate issues directly affecting rural communities.

This year has not seen the worst drought of the 21st century, but the award still comes at an opportune time, said Mary Emery, director of Rural Prosperity Nebraska.

“The degree and frequency of extreme climate events seem to be increasing, and if we are prepared, not only for drought but for other events, as well, we can decrease the impact of those events,” she said. “We are hoping to learn how new developments in our understanding of climate extremes and resiliency can help Nebraska communities better prepare, and thus lessen, the impact of extreme climate events.”

Tyson Ochsner, professor of plant and soil sciences at Oklahoma State and the project’s principal investigator, said: “We are excited to launch this new project called Rural Confluence, which is designed to bring together people and ideas from diverse but connected communities, disciplines and institutions within the Mississippi River basin to advance the science of rural resilience and to reduce climate-related vulnerabilities in rural communities. We named this Rural Confluence because a lot of this work will focus on water, and the name reflects the idea of rivers coming together.” 

The project is a collaboration among Oklahoma State faculty and students, Rural Prosperity Nebraska and Louisiana State University’s Gulf Scholars Program, along with Western Oklahoma State College and Northern Oklahoma College. 

The impacts on water resources across the nation and world are some of the most significant effects of the changing climate, Ochsner said. By identifying potential solutions to expected climate change-driven losses and focusing climate resilience research on rural communities, the team is hoping to bridge the divide between rural and scientific communities while creating frameworks and civic engagement strategies that may be applied in other rural communities around the world.