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The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has won a $3.1 million federal grant that will allow it to launch a graduate program focused on water research and policy -- a hallmark announcement for a campus intent on becoming a global leader in water studies.

UNL leaders gathered Thursday to celebrate the grant from the National Science Foundation, an award that had been in the works for several years as teams of faculty sought funding for what they have long believed is critical research.

"This is a milestone," UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman told the crowd at the Van Brunt Visitors Center. "I like milestones."

The grant allows UNL to create an Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program for 22 doctoral students over the next five years.

Through the program, students will study natural water supplies across the world, from the Platte River in Nebraska to Hungary's Tisza River to Poland's Odra River.

They'll study the factors that put those watersheds under stress -- climate change, drought, biological invasions, human overuse -- and how much stress the watersheds can take before they can no longer function efficiently.

And students will study law and public policy as they relate to watershed management.

Such study is important, UNL leaders say, because water is the source of life around the globe.

With the world's population growing fast, and given such other increasingly relevant factors as climate change, scientists and policymakers must find ways to maximize a limited supply.

Nebraska is no exception, UNL geosciences professor Sheri Fritz said.

"The state is plagued by all sorts of competing needs for water," such as agriculture, said Fritz, one of the leaders of the new graduate program.

The Platte River also is a key source of support for an entire hemisphere's population of sandhill cranes, which stop at the river each spring during their migration north, added UNL wildlife ecologist Craig Allen, the program's leader.

UNL's program, then, will provide students ample opportunities to conduct research with real-world consequences, Fritz and Allen agreed.

The first group of graduate students will enter the program in January.

Federal support allows UNL to offer them generous scholarships, which should help lure the best and brightest, Fritz said.

The students -- like the 20-plus UNL faculty members involved in the program -- will come from academic backgrounds including natural resources, public policy, computer science, social science and law.

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UNL also will get support from several local agencies, like the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources.

That's because solving the world's most complex water problems requires expertise in a multitude of fields, UNL leaders said.

"Today's celebration is a salute to that collaborative spirit," said Prem Paul, vice chancellor for research and economic development.

In time, UNL hopes to tap the state's strengths in agriculture, life sciences and water to create a "global water institute" where faculty would be dedicated to water research and policy studies.

The university's latest grant reflects that commitment, Perlman said.

"This grant is just another example of faculty work putting UNL on the map."

Reach Melissa Lee at 473-2682 or mlee@journalstar.com.

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