Farmers in the small town of Hoxie, Kansas, have been pumping water out of the Ogallala Aquifer six times faster than rain can naturally recharge it. This is a big deal because most of the town depends upon the flow of water to grow corn, which is the mainstay of the local economy. But here’s the remarkable thing: In order to preserve the water at sustainable levels, the farmers have agreed among themselves to cut back on their use of the water by 20 percent for five years.
As Dan Charles of National Public Radio reported (October 21):
A few years ago, officials from the state of Kansas who monitor the groundwater situation came to the farmers of Hoxie and told them that the water table here was falling fast. They drew a line around an area covering 99 square miles, west of the town, and called together the farmers in that area for a series of meetings.
They told the farmers that the water was like gasoline in the tank. If every one agreed to use it more sparingly, it would last longer.
Proposals to cut back water for irrigation have not been popular in parts like these, to say the least. In the past, farmers across the American West have treated them like declarations of war. Raymond Luhman, who works for the groundwater management district that includes Hoxie, says that’s understandable: “Many of them feel like the right to use that water is ...” he says, pausing, “it's their lifeblood!”
It’s also their property. Under the law, it’s not clear that any government can take it away from them, or order them to use less of it.
But in Hoxie, the conversation took a different turn.
Contrary to the “tragedy of the commons” parable, which holds that no single farmer would have any incentive to rein in his or her water consumption, the farmers of Hoxie found a way to cooperate and overcome their over-consumption problem. They came up with a set of rules to reduce their water usage for a five-year trial run; had the state government make it a formal requirement; and installed meters on everyone’s pumps to verify compliance.