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Picture the 4-H exhibits displayed proudly at the Nebraska State Fair and the crowds humming along through rows and rows of colorful and creative works.

Now, blow that scene up to a global scale, with sprawling pavilions sponsored by world leaders touting developments in water conservation and corporations showcasing cutting-edge irrigation technology.

That was the expo at the Eighth World Water Forum, said John Berge, manager of the North Platte Natural Resources District. The Forum drew more than 20,000 participants from 170 different countries to discuss and promote action on global water issues.

Berge, who traveled to Brazil for the forum in March with an entourage from the University of Nebraska’s Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, said there was a conspicuous absence among the impressive displays of China, Turkey and France, however.

“What was perplexing to me at the time was there was no real representation from the United States,” he said. “It was disappointing to me, just as sort of a parochial patriot, because we should be leading in this space, showing the world how to better manage their resources.”

The small booths hosted by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Reclamation were underwhelming and not representative of the types of innovation happening across the country in terms of water management and responsible agricultural production, Berge said.

But, he noted, the small presence by the U.S. government opened the door for Water for Food to assume leadership at the 2018 World Water Forum.

“The Daugherty Water for Food Institute really carried the day,” he said. “There were a number of Americans at the conference, but Water for Food was sort of the premier American organization.”

It’s a common situation Water for Food’s leadership has found itself in recently, said executive director Peter McCornick, as the institute has become a sought-after partner and convener since its formation in 2010.

Water for Food in recent years has brought an international array of farmers, researchers, ag companies, policymakers and philanthropists to Lincoln for its global conference. The 2017 conference explored how small-scale irrigation practices in the state could be replicated on farms around the world.

"The story of the state and how it manages water resources is a fundamental underpinning of what we do," McCornick said.

Last January, Water for Food partnered with the World Bank and multiple U.S. government agencies to lead another global summit in Washington, D.C., geared toward improving irrigation practices for small farmers in developing agricultural economies.

And at the recent World Water Forum, which occurs once every three years, McCornick was tapped to moderate a panel featuring ministers of agriculture and the environment from Brazil and Spain, as well as leaders from national farming associations.

McCornick said Nebraska has drawn international interest for its work through Water for Food, as well as for the system of local governance used to manage water and irrigation practices through natural resource districts.

Two NRD officials who attended the forum, Berge and Scott Snell, public relations manager for the Upper Big Blue NRD in York, were highlighted through their own talks at the international conference, McCornick said.

"Having practitioners there, people who really deal with this and who are used to managing the complexity of an NRD, certainly resonated with the participants."

Berge said he wasn't aware of the international interest in Nebraska's unique and solitary NRD system until he became involved with Water for Food.

"Local governance, in concert with having those who are regulated regulate themselves, is a concept that is widely sought around the world," he said. "Europe, Africa, South America — all of these people we talked to were really clamoring on how to set up a similar system."

Snell, who likes to use props during his talks and wore five hats to illustrate the different roles he plays within the NRD, talked about the need for building trust among farmers and livestock producers in implementing solid water management policies.

"I travel a lot and I get to talk to a lot of water officials. They envy our system," Snell said. "It's not perfect — you can ask a lot of farmers — but it is a really good system.

"To have the policy and research folks at Water for Food evangelizing and promoting the NRD systems and how they can work in other countries is making us a signature piece at places like the World Water Forum, which is really, really humbling," he said.

The Americans and Brazilians have even formed a diplomatic relationship, visiting each other's homes and farms, and pledging to create a student exchange program in the near future, Snell added.

For McCornick, Water for Food's future lies in its ability to leverage the stature it's gained in less than a decade as a capable partner and knowledgeable moderator among other experts in the field.

Even though the institute has little experience with solar-powered irrigation, Water for Food was invited to participate in an global forum in Rome organized by the Food and Agricultural Organization.

"We don't have much expertise in solar, but we do have expertise in how to direct funding for such projects so it reaches the small-scale farmers where it can make a difference," he said.

McCornick predicted with the backing of NU, the Robert B. Daugherty Foundation, named for the founder of Valmont Industries who helped transform irrigation practices in Nebraska and beyond, and the know-how of NRD officials such as Berge and Snell, Water for Food will continue shining a spotlight on Nebraska.

"Although we're a small institute, we're well placed," he said. "I think now, eight years in, our name and reputation are rising."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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