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Water threats

Applying economic game theory to Kansas' dwindling water supply situation allows those responsible for enforcement to predict potential abuses. Particularly when it concerns the strategies employed by those possessing water rights for more than 85 percent of the state's usage -- irrigators.

These farmers, who act simultaneously without knowledge of the others' decisions, attempt to produce the best outcome for themselves and their crops. It isn't difficult to understand water is necessary to create harvestable wheat and corn. Nor is it hard to imagine that drought years provide the incentive to use more water than is allowed. Granted, state law does allow for overappropriation -- but only if that overage is brought into balance within five years in the flex program.

Game theory, in particular the prisoner's dilemma, illustrates that if all irrigators overappropriate water in order to achieve that year's bounty they could be harming themselves in the long run. The best outcome would allow them to continue farming the land, which would be impossible if water sources are depleted.

The Kansas Division of Water Resources is entrusted with monitoring usage. Even though water rights are real property rights, the water itself is a collective resource owned by all Kansans. As the plains simply would be inhabitable without the precious resource, DWR ensures irrigators play by the established rules.

Lately, state employees have been receiving threats from some who are apparently breaking those rules. While spot-checking water meters, DWR workers have been told they would be chained to poles, run over with tractors or risk being shot should they return.

The intimidation, whether meant literally or not, is unwarranted. It's not surprising, given the extended drought much of the state has endured for years, but there is no place for it. Obviously, it's also against the law.

Kim Christianson, the Division of Water Resources' chief legal counsel, has heard enough examples that she will be sending letters detailing the penalties for such behavior. This step to ensure worker safety should not be necessary. Threats of bodily harm is against the law, and should not be tolerated.

The irrigators responsible for the threats should consider themselves lucky they're not already under arrest. To be given a courtesy letter reminding them of the law is more than they deserve. We would hope those few learn the lesson quickly.

We also would hope all irrigators understand and apply the principles of the prisoner's dilemma. The long-term outcome for all of us will be optimized only if some farmers sacrifice their individual short-term interests. A crop's failure is devastating this year, but might be necessary so future years are even possible.

The water appropriations manager for DWR notes there were about 750 cases of over-pumping last year in central Kansas alone. Such behavior indicates a lack of understanding how the game is played -- or blatant disregard for the rules.

Ultimately, responsible water stewardship is not a game. It is a life-sustaining necessity for the almost 3 million individuals who call Kansas home.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net