The Ogallala – another example of what people do when the water starts to run out

Kate Galbraith in the New York Times last week had a piece with another example of how farmers respond when the water begins to run out:

Mr. Grall’s cornfield is part of a closely watched demonstration project aimed at showing farmers how to use less irrigation water on their crops. It was put together by a groundwater authority in the Panhandle that strictly limits the amount of Ogallala water each farmer can pump. The project reflects the harsh reality that has taken hold across the drought-stricken state: farmers, who account for more than half of the water used in Texas, must learn to do more with less, just like cities and industrial plants.

The story is a reminder that simply extrapolating current supply and demand trends into the future and then projecting our doom is not the right way to think about or water future in the increasingly arid West. You have to look at both the alternative approaches that use less water (which are many, as Galbraith’s story points out) and also the ability of our institutions to provide the underlying structures needed to support adaptation:

The North Plains district first imposed pumping limits in 2005 and tightened them in 2009. In 2005, it also began phasing in requirements for some wells to have meters. Both moves were controversial at the time. A larger groundwater district just south of North Plains, the 16-county High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, has struggled in its attempts to impose metering requirements and pumping limits.