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. Image Removed

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. 

Clearly a key factor in the success of this plan (so far) has been the town’s small size and tight social connections.  The owner of the biggest business in town, Scott Foote of Hoxie Feedyard, told the NPR reporter:  “It was a lot of neighbors got together, that know each other personally, go to church with each other, kids go to school with each other. Honestly, it’s just a tightknit community.”

A farmer explained his support for the Hoxie water commons this way:  “It’s my name at stake. And I don’t want to sound selfish, but I don’t want to let my kids down. We’ve got a great corps of youth in Sheridan County, Thomas County, and I don’t want to let them down!”

One farmer in Hoxie is not happy with the new plan, but no one else was willing to join him in fighting it in court – so he is coming to terms with the cutbacks.

It’s an open question whether farmers in other parts of Kansas who draw upon the High Plains Aquifer (of which the Ogallala Aquifer is a part) will also reduce their water consumption.  Paradoxically, it is harder to achieve the same results as the scale of the commons grows larger because greater complexities make it harder to achieve a working consensus and plan.  And for their part, the farmers of Hoxie don’t want to cast themselves as suckers who are exploited by less-conscientious farmers elsewhere.  It’s a classic collective-action problem.

The state of Kansas has a rare opportunity to build the commons to a larger scale and in so doing harness the powers of the commons.  It could organize a federation of commons with state oversight and coordination, for example, so that local self-organization and rule-making could prevail while still being coordinated with the larger scale of the groundwater supplies.  If the state tried to simply mandate limits on water usage (assuming that is even politically possible), local farmers would likely resent the rules as outsider interference and probably flout the rules, especially since their property rights legally entitle them to pump as much water as they want. 

But if the farmers themselves were invited to make the rules and rely upon peer monitoring and pressure to enforce them, everyone is more likely to comply and work to identify free riders.  Water usage might actually be brought down to ecologically sustainable limits.  The real challenge here is how to build a larger, interconnected network of water commons.

Fortunately, the farmers of Hoxie have gotten the ball rolling.  Here’s hoping they can build on their initial insights and apply it throughout the Great Plains.  Given the failures of the free market and government mandates to date, it’s hard to know what else will succeed.

Here is the full broadcast of the NPR story on Hoxie farmers.