Mark Peterson: Tragedy of the water commons

09/06/2013 5:48 PM

09/06/2013 5:48 PM

Apparently hoping to give away some zucchini in August, Gov. Sam Brownback had a garden press event concerning the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer. The Ogallala, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, is getting smaller, fast.

The governor declared: “It’s the tragedy of the commons. That’s the principle you have to break. We’ve got to be good stewards.”

“The Tragedy of the Commons” was a reference to Garrett Hardin’s article published in the journal Science in December 1968.

It was stunning to hear the governor say this, because it is so out of keeping with the general value system that supports the highly libertarian-flavored conservative politics that rule the roost in Kansas. Perhaps second only to Texas, Kansas is the land of rugged individualists.

Conserving things in collective acts of shared stewardship doesn’t have much traction among such conservatives. That the governor would speak favorably about collective action probably caused shivering fits in folks with those Kansas conservative values.

Populations consuming resources without collectively imposed and enforced limits cause the “tragedies.” The Ogallala is experiencing the effects of just what Hardin wrote about 45 years ago. The Ogallala is (was) a great underground freshwater pool. At the time of Kansas’ statehood, it stretched from the plains east of the Rockies to the central regions of Nebraska and Kansas, and from the Sandhills of northern Nebraska to the remotest reaches of West Texas. In places in the early part of the 20th century, a hand-dug well could reach it, and seldom was the water more than a couple hundred feet down.

The one great disadvantage of the Ogallala is that it has very little recharge capability. The last great addition to the aquifer occurred in the last Ice Age, but the bulk of the resource was collected 2 million to 6 million years ago. In the 150 years of Great Plains settlement, the aquifer has been so depleted that the southernmost portion is no longer usable. Kansas State University researchers recently released a study showing about one-third of this state’s available resource has been consumed just in the past 50 years.

The sources of this depletion come from our legal tradition and technology. The ownership of land in the west has meant ownership of the water under it. While laws require permitting and recording of wells, generally speaking, how the water under a farm or ranch or town is used is unregulated. The second source has to do with pivot irrigation. All across this region, which typically receives 15 to 20 inches of annual precipitation, pivot systems produce bounteous crops where 150 years ago buffalo grass and wild prairie covered the land.

With little notion of a shared responsibility for the careful use of the Ogallala, with a strongly held belief that no one had the right to tell a farmer or a rancher what he could do with the resources that belonged to him and the bank, and with a widely held expectation that nature’s bounty was limitless and subject to divine replenishment, everybody put his straw in the aquifer and sucked as hard as he could.

Brownback is hosting a water conference in Manhattan Oct. 24-25. For all our sakes, let’s hope his message of collective responsibility hits home. Otherwise, it will be as Mom said when our straw finished the chocolate milk:

“I hear you’ve reached the bottom.”

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