Great Plains states could face a widespread drought in the next few decades, according to a new study.

A three-year-long study of past climate cycles points to a significant drought in the coming years, according to a study released this week by the Energy and Environmental Research Center, which is based in North Dakota.

Center Director Gerald Groenewold said the drought's economic impact will be magnified if water management strategies are not implemented. It could even jeopardize the sustainability of living conditions in the area, he said.

"The public and decision-makers need to recognize the magnitude, severity, and urgency of this issue," said Groenewold, of Grand Forks, N.D. "Our greatest challenge is to admit we have a problem."

The study looked at lake bottom sediments in North Dakota and western Minnesota but the findings apply to Nebraska and other states, he said.

Efforts to deal with limited water resources have been in the works for years, said David Aiken, a natural resources water law specialist at the University of Nebraska. These efforts will require a transition for water users, and will be greatly felt by farmers who irrigate, Aiken said. They can farm at normal levels with less water, he said.

If local laws are not developed, federal mandates will be, Aiken said. He envisions water becoming a top commodity in the next few years, with water rights being bought and sold. "We'll start to see what water is worth in the marketplace," Aiken said.

Aiken said fights for water will become simpler as water becomes more of a commodity, which Groenewold referred to as the "petroleum of the 21st century."

Groups ranging from communities who want a water basin to environmental groups who want to protect endangered species could compete to purchase water, he said.