Tragedy of the commons – Water edition

You can add this to Climate Change (which is probably driving some of this), ocean pollution, overfishing, and dying bees to things to be concerned about.

HASKELL COUNTY, Kan. — 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…

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

This is in many ways a slow-motion crisis — decades in the making, imminent for some, years or decades away for others, hitting one farm but leaving an adjacent one untouched. But across the rolling plains and tarmac-flat farmland near the Kansas-Colorado border, the effects of depletion are evident everywhere. Highway bridges span arid stream beds. Most of the creeks and rivers that once veined the land have dried up as 60 years of pumping have pulled groundwater levels down by scores and even hundreds of feet…

What makes this a tragedy of the commons is the response to technology that allowed farmers to get the same results and use less water:

The villain in this story is in fact the farmers’ savior: the center-pivot irrigator, a quarter- or half-mile of pipe that traces a watery circle around a point in the middle of a field. The center pivots helped start a revolution that raised farming from hardscrabble work to a profitable business.

Since the pivots’ debut some six decades ago, the amount of irrigated cropland in Kansas has grown to nearly three million acres, from a mere 250,000 in 1950. But the pivot irrigators’ thirst for water — hundreds and sometimes thousands of gallons a minute — has sent much of the aquifer on a relentless decline. And while the big pivots have become much more efficient, a University of California study earlier this year concluded that Kansas farmers were using some of their water savings to expand irrigation or grow thirstier crops, not to reduce consumption.

Of course, the government shares some of the blame with its rather insane farm subsidies and policies that made ethanol a preferred fuel.

But it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the environmental chickens are coming home to roost for us. That after 120 odd years of naked capitalist exploitation of land in the name of ever increasing profit that we are depleting our environment in an unsustainable fashion that will probably reach a crisis level if not in my lifetime, than in the lifetime of my children.

A sane response to this would be to devise and experiment with regulations and laws that would help us govern how we use our resources to balance profitability with sustainability.

Stop laughing.

I know we don’t live in a sane world, as the nominee to head up the EPA can’t even get a confirmation vote in Congress, because many in our government see no issue with the unlimited exploitation of the land, consequences be damned.

So, I imagine our children in 50-60 years will have a greater reason to hate their parents than the usual ones. I expect to be turned into Soylent Green myself and I can’t say I’d blame ‘em.


One thought on “Tragedy of the commons – Water edition

  1. Pingback: Water shortage → food shortage | All Tied Up and Nowhere to Go

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