Water: Overcoming a Tragedy of the Commons

Supplies of freshwater are tightening. The issue is complex – driven by changes in surface and groundwater use, a changing climate, and a patchwork of regulatory bodies.  Take an example from the Center’s backyard. Across an expansive swath of the heartland, water from the Ogallala Aquifer supports farm, ranch, and rural life. More than two million people and one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle grown in our country are supported by the aquifer.

There’s one problem. We’re depleting key parts of the aquifer faster than they can be recharged by rain.

Availability of water in a vulnerable part of Kansas could peak by 2040. A proposed water conservation plan developed by local agencies would reduce use by 20 percent, delaying peak water availability until 2070. Avoiding the peak altogether requires conservation practices beyond those currently contemplated.

Drop south to Texas and you’ll find places where the water table has fallen from depths of 150 feet to 300 feet or more. Wells that yielded 1,000 gallons a minute struggle to produce 100 gallons a minute.

While the challenges in these areas are more severe, they show the growing dilemma we face as our appetite for water outstrips supply.

Management and regulation of water is often left to a patchwork of local and regional water districts. This makes even statewide management difficult to coordinate, let alone regional approaches. Local water districts are reluctant to impose usage limits even in the face of water shortages.

In many ways this is a classic tragedy of the commons. That’s why it is up to us. Rural people need to come together to develop water use plans that support our community today while preserving the resource to support our children and grandchildren.

Technology advancements can help. Improved irrigation systems reduce water use by 20-30 percent without sacrificing crop yields. Some row-crop irrigators are experimenting with drip tape laid in the ground, a practice historically used only for more water-intensive specialty crops.

More efficient irrigation and other technological advancements can only solve part of the challenge. Land use and cropping system changes will be needed too. Crops such as sorghum and milo are less water intensive than corn. Increased pastureland can provide farmers more flexibility in dry years. It will be critical to demonstrate how those who work the land can make a profit and how communities can remain vibrant while using less water.

Federal farm programs designed to incentivize water conservation recently came under scrutiny. They were blamed for fueling an expansion of irrigated acres as efficiency improved. Incentive programs only help address the challenge if farm policy is reformed to discourage expansion of irrigated acres.

As rural leaders, it is up to us. We must work together to protect the heritage of our communities and preserve the ability of our children to continue to live and work in the areas we call home.