Brownback Urges Reforms to Preserve Ogallala Aquifer

Published August 29, 2011

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) is urging elimination of “use it or lose it” state mandates regarding water-use rights. Brownback says the mandates, designed with the intent of preventing water prospecting by people with no intent of constructively using water resources, are encouraging overutilization of water from the declining Ogallala Aquifer.

The vast Ogallala provides water to Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. The aquifer has been declining since the 1960s because water replenishment is not keeping up with water withdrawal.

Key to Economy

“This discussion about the Ogallala Aquifer is key to the economic future of our state,” said Brownback in a July 21 press release accompanying the public forum. “Without Ogallala water, agriculture and all of its related businesses could not be sustained, manufacturing could not continue, recreational opportunities would diminish and the towns in the area would cease to exist.”

“Managing the Ogallala Aquifer in a way that both benefits agriculture today and sustains the valuable water resource for future generations is crucial to the success of the state,” said Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Dale Rodman in the press release.

Regional Cooperation a Must

Water analysts say cooperation among regional states is crucial to preserving the aquifer.

“If Gov. Brownback can bring the impacted [states’] governors together, they may reach some agreement. The issues with the Ogallala Aquifer are similar to the issues between the upriver states and the downstream states relative to the Missouri River basin,” said Ron Williamson, president of the South Dakota-based Great Plains Public Policy Institute.

“Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback should be applauded for taking on the difficult issue of preserving the Ogallala Aquifer for future generations,” agreed Paul Gessing, president of the New Mexico-based Rio Grande Foundation. “While specifics of the plan for reducing depletion are in the works, there can be no doubt that revamping of ‘use them or lose them’ water rights throughout the region must be addressed. Also, the impact of intensified corn growing for ethanol production must be addressed in terms of its impact on the aquifer.”

Overusing ‘Free’ Goods

Floy Lilley, an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, says the lack of market pricing contributes to overutilization of Ogallala Aquifer water. 

“All ‘free’ goods will be over-demanded, as the Ogallala Aquifer is,” Lilley said.

Walter Block, professor and economics chair at Loyola University in New Orleans, agrees, explaining, “If there were a shortage of any other liquid—milk, orange juice, soda, wine, oil—and demand was outstripping supply, the remedy would be clear: the price of it would rise, and that would be the end of the problem. The owners would have an incentive to bring more of it—or substitutes for it—to market, and the consumers would be induced, by the higher price, to economize on the good in question.”

‘A Sane Step’

“As most people know, Ogallala groundwater is being ‘mined’ as water extractions for agricultural irrigation outpace the natural rate of recharge,” said water economist David Zetland, author ofThe End of Abundance: Economic Solutions to Water Scarcity. “This longstanding policy makes sense, but it must be limited in two ways: first, by reducing the harm from one farmer’s pumping [from a regional resource]; second, by limiting extractions today if it makes more sense to have water tomorrow.

“Both of these goals can be reached with simple regulations, property rights, and markets,” he continued. “The regulations would ensure that everyone’s extractions are tracked; property rights would mean that extractions in one place are not allowed to outpace extractions in another place; [and] markets would allow those who want to use more water to buy the right to pump more from those who have the right to extract but prefer to sell that right for money.”

Lilley says Brownback’s proposal fits that approach. “Gov. Brownback’s call to eliminate state laws that require farmers to use their water or lose their water rights is a sane step,” said Lilley. “Only free markets with protected private property rights can deliver the water prices that allow rational calculations to guide water resource choices.” 

D. Brady Nelson ([email protected]) is a Milwaukee-based economist.