By Sophie Westbrook, ’19

I’m from Kansas. Although I would rather you stopped picturing a never-ending expanse of cornfields, it is true that we rely on agriculture. That sector represents about 6% of our GDP in theory and even more in practice [1]. It creates jobs at every stage of the food-distribution pipeline and supplies national and international markets. There is a strong link between crop yield and well-being, even for those (like me) who don’t know the first thing about farming. So, despite the evils of corporate agriculture, it can be comforting to see that the production systems are high-tech and strictly regulated. It’s hard to feel that way right now, though. Much of the careful research is becoming irrelevant as water shortages threaten to deserve their often-applied “crisis” designation.

Climate change is making the state drier. There have been several dramatic drought years since 2000, some of which wiped out large crop areas [2]. However, this stressor has been manageable thus far. After an extremely wet 2015, a dry start to 2016 has raised wildfire alerts but roused little panic in the agricultural sector. The bigger issue is the Ogallala aquifer. Underlying eight states, this reservoir is the irrigation source for $20 billion of crops [3]. Luckily, it’s rather large: if you spread it across America, all 50 states would be covered with 1.5 feet of water! Unluckily, we have found ways to deplete it terrifyingly quickly. Once it’s gone, it will not refill for 6,000 years,

The stock explanation here is “tragedy of the commons.” A decision-maker extracts more of a common resource than he should and enjoys the whole payoff while everyone shares the costs. He doesn’t feel particularly guilty because everyone else is acting the same way; that is, he could not preserve the resource by abstaining. Sustainability theory concludes that privatization and top-down regulation are the only ways to escape the tragedy.

This framing may not be wrong, but it’s worth pointing out that Midwestern agriculture already has a close relationship with both “solutions.” For better or worse, a few big conglomerates dominate the industry. Similarly, a more-or-less reasonable set of water management laws has been in place for decades. Our problem comes not from a shortage of organization, but from inherent difficulties with aquifer conservation. The topic feels uncertain, distant, and easily distorted because we can’t actually see the resource. The NRCS’s Ogallala Aquifer Initiative responds to these cognitive problems by framing its proposals in terms of short-term farming or administrative results [4]. There’s a condescending note to the way they limit big-picture commentary. They have the right to choose their angle, though. Here’s hoping it works.


[1] “Economy.” Kansas Department of Commerce. Kansas Department of Commerce, 2016. Web. 19 Apr. 2016. <>.

[2] Kansas Climate Summary 2015. Rep. Kansas Water Office, 2015. Web. <>.

[3] Little, Jane Braxton. “The Ogallala Aquifer: Saving a Vital U.S. Water Source.” Scientific American. Scientific American, 1 Mar. 2009. Web. 19 Apr. 2016. <>.

[4] “Ogallala Aquifer Initiative.” Natural Resources Conservation Service. Natural Resources Conservation Service, 2015. Web. 19 Apr. 2016. <>.

This article is the fourth in Sophie Westbrook’s column called “Water, Water Everywhere”.




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