www.mozilla.com Weather Central
Voices
Headlines

The defining issue of economic recovery -7/27/2014, 4:53 PM

In a world of sectarian violence, what can be done? -7/27/2014, 4:53 PM

Funding DHDC -7/27/2014, 1:18 PM

Endorsement for Shultz -7/25/2014, 3:28 PM

Against the wind -7/25/2014, 4:23 PM

Do blacks need favors? -7/25/2014, 4:23 PM

Vote Huelskamp out -7/25/2014, 4:23 PM

Open meetings -7/24/2014, 8:07 AM

Leadership change needed -7/24/2014, 8:07 AM

Vote for Huelskamp -7/24/2014, 8:06 AM

Protecting unborn children -7/24/2014, 8:06 AM

Learning experience valuable -7/24/2014, 8:06 AM

False equivalence -7/23/2014, 8:07 AM

Measles' scary comeback -7/23/2014, 1:27 PM

The 'big data' deal -7/23/2014, 10:07 AM

GOP can't get out of its own way -7/23/2014, 10:07 AM

War only will add to Middle East problems -7/22/2014, 8:10 AM

Avoiding taxes -7/22/2014, 8:10 AM

Take the win in Iran -7/21/2014, 8:57 AM

The high court's high-handedness -7/21/2014, 8:57 AM

Up in arms in the Capitol -7/20/2014, 4:52 PM

Firefighters weigh in on pay raise -7/20/2014, 4:52 PM

Backpacks for Kids -7/20/2014, 4:52 PM

Our unwillingness to defend ourselves -7/18/2014, 10:51 AM

Remembering a man who championed freedom -7/18/2014, 10:51 AM

GOP split -7/17/2014, 8:38 AM

New Kansas senator -7/17/2014, 8:37 AM

Who'll build the roads? -7/17/2014, 8:37 AM

Reagan: In or out? -7/16/2014, 2:45 PM

'Unbroken' WWII vet more than a hero -7/16/2014, 2:44 PM

Savor the fruits of your labor -7/16/2014, 2:44 PM

Erasing candidate's standards -7/15/2014, 11:36 AM

Returning to Trail Wood -7/15/2014, 10:13 AM

Leaving some in 'suspense' -7/15/2014, 10:13 AM

Strangers in a remarkable land -7/14/2014, 9:11 AM

Courageous or spineless? Our actions decide -7/14/2014, 9:11 AM

Ambition: An unlikely gift to Kansas voters -7/13/2014, 11:16 AM

Beyond the outrage -7/13/2014, 11:16 AM

Water watch -7/13/2014, 11:16 AM

Scenic outlooks -7/11/2014, 9:18 AM

China's research trumps teaching -7/11/2014, 9:17 AM

Important slow news -7/10/2014, 9:42 AM

We've got a promise to keep -7/10/2014, 9:33 AM

The white combine calls -7/9/2014, 10:02 AM

Vote for family values -7/9/2014, 10:02 AM

Politicians making a mockery of my faith -7/9/2014, 10:02 AM

Missing tribute -7/9/2014, 10:02 AM

Rural students deserve 21st Century education -7/8/2014, 9:10 AM

The education table dance -7/8/2014, 9:10 AM

A new virus -7/8/2014, 9:10 AM

Government as God -7/7/2014, 9:38 AM

EPA affecting others -7/7/2014, 9:38 AM

'Narrow' decision from the narrow-minded -7/7/2014, 9:38 AM

The tax trap -7/6/2014, 4:35 PM

Rulings produce 'First Amendment fireworks' -7/6/2014, 4:35 PM

Firefighter salaries -7/6/2014, 4:35 PM

Economic freedom -7/4/2014, 11:54 AM

Protecting our independence -7/4/2014, 11:54 AM

Dan Johnson, 1936-2014 -7/3/2014, 7:12 AM

New Iraq offensive backfires -7/3/2014, 7:11 AM

Setting things straight -7/3/2014, 7:11 AM

'Crapitalism' -7/3/2014, 7:11 AM

Feeding peace throughout the world -7/2/2014, 9:01 AM

Half way is still only half way -7/2/2014, 9:01 AM

Sherow a better choice -7/2/2014, 9:01 AM

Fireworks, part II -7/2/2014, 9:01 AM

Reality show made in Topeka -7/1/2014, 8:53 AM

The justices and their cellphones -7/1/2014, 8:53 AM

LOB defeated -7/1/2014, 8:53 AM

Tragedy explored in 'Broken Heart Land' -6/30/2014, 9:14 AM

Mexico City: The adventure continues -6/30/2014, 9:14 AM

Even our youngest Americans are citizens -6/29/2014, 12:58 PM

Ban on fireworks -6/29/2014, 12:58 PM

It's time to teach active citizenship -6/29/2014, 12:57 PM

The education establishment's success -6/27/2014, 10:39 AM

Piecework professors -6/27/2014, 10:39 AM

Marriage for all -6/27/2014, 10:39 AM

Prairie chicken madness -6/26/2014, 4:17 PM

Omission control -6/26/2014, 10:12 AM

Equal in the eyes of the law -6/26/2014, 10:12 AM

Help wanted -6/26/2014, 10:12 AM

The old red barn -6/25/2014, 9:19 AM

Beware the unimaginable -6/25/2014, 9:19 AM

Early critic of school testing was right -6/24/2014, 8:53 AM

Finding something 'different' in Topeka -6/24/2014, 8:53 AM

Shopping small -6/24/2014, 8:53 AM

Into the classroom -6/23/2014, 8:55 AM

Wow! And thanks to you -6/23/2014, 8:55 AM

Fireworks double-standard -6/23/2014, 8:55 AM

Glass half full -6/22/2014, 5:57 PM

Brownback's experiment wallops taxpayers -6/22/2014, 5:56 PM

Examining the importance of 'where' we speak -6/22/2014, 5:56 PM

Slavery reparations -6/20/2014, 8:33 AM

'Help me plagiarize' -6/20/2014, 8:33 AM

Thank a farmer -6/20/2014, 8:33 AM

Here comes tomorrow -6/19/2014, 8:43 AM

Why Americans dislike soccer -6/19/2014, 8:43 AM

Switching to teaching -6/18/2014, 4:32 PM

Clinic closing good -6/17/2014, 9:59 AM

Other avenues -6/17/2014, 9:59 AM

myTown Calendar

SPOTLIGHT
[var top_story_head]

Ogallala and our uncommon tragedy

Published on -9/8/2013, 12:19 PM

Printer-friendly version
E-Mail This Story

By MARK PETERSON

Insight Kansas

Apparently hoping to give away some zucchini last 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" is 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. While they might be conservatives, conserving things in collective acts of shared stewardship doesn't have much traction. 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.

Huge in its area, the one great disadvantage of the Ogallala is that it has very little recharge capability. It is a fossil resource. 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 the southernmost portion is no longer usable. Kansas State University researchers recently released a study showing approximately one-third of this state's available resource has been consumed in just the last 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 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, 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 a widely held expectation that nature's bounty was limitless and subject to divine replenishment -- everybody put their straw in the aquifer and sucked as hard as they could.

The "squash garden" story concluded: "Brownback has had a tougher time finding takers among Kansas farmers and ranchers for his view of collaborative self-preservation in regards to the Ogallala Aquifer."

He's hosting a water conference in Manhattan on Oct. 24 and 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."

Mark Peterson teaches college-level political science and public administration in Topeka.

digg delicious facebook stumbleupon google Newsvine
More News and Photos

Associated Press Videos