Aquifers: Modern Tragedy of the Commons

A bit late, but better than never.

From the New York Times:

Forty-nine years ago, Ashley Yost’s grandfather sank a well deep into a half-mile square of rich Kansas farmland. He struck an artery of water so prodigious that he could pump 1,600 gallons to the surface every minute.

Last year, Mr. Yost was coaxing just 300 gallons from the earth, and pumping up sand in order to do it. By harvest time, the grit had robbed him of $20,000 worth of pumps and any hope of returning to the bumper harvests of years past.

“That’s prime land,” he said not long ago, gesturing from his pickup at the stubby remains of last year’s crop. “I’ve raised 294 bushels of corn an acre there before, with water and the Lord’s help.” Now, he said, “it’s over.”

The land, known as Section 35, sits atop the High Plains Aquifer, a waterlogged jumble of sand, clay and gravel that begins beneath Wyoming and South Dakota and stretches clear to the Texas Panhandle. The aquifer’s northern reaches still hold enough water in many places to last hundreds of years. But as one heads south, it is increasingly tapped out, drained by ever more intensive farming and, lately, by drought.

Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the aquifer no longer support irrigation. In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry. In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers.

And when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains.

What we have here is another example of the Tragedy of the Commons. The Tragedy of the Commons, for the economically uninitiated, is where a common resource is depleted or mismanaged by individuals acting in their short term interests while ignoring the long term results on the resource. With fisheries, for example, a fisher might think that it is in their economic interest to catch more fish to sell, thus increasing income, while ignoring that if all the fishers on the fishery increase their harvest the fishery could be depleted.

Theoretically, there should be a Federal agency to prevent this from happening: the EPA via the Clean Water Act could have jurisdiction. But it appears nothing will be done until it is too late.

PS: From PopSci:

Over the last century, the U.S. has depleted enough of its underground freshwater supply to fill Lake Erie twice, according to a new study from the U.S. Geological Survey. Here’s another way to understand how much water we’ve used. Just between 2000 and 2008, the latest period in the study and the period of fastest depletion, Americans brought enough water aboveground to contribute to 2 percent of worldwide ocean level rise in that time.

“We think it’s serious,” Leonard Konikow, the U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist who performed the study, tells Popular Science. “It’s more serious in certain areas.”

A map of the most depleted aquifers:

 Groundwater Depletion in the US

Groundwater Depletion in the US: Alaska isn’t included in this map because it hasn’t had any significant groundwater depletion.  L.F. Konikow, U.S. Geological Survey

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