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Farmers are depleting the Ogallala Aquifer because the government pays them to do it

Burke W Griggs, Matthew R Sanderson, and Jacob A Miller-Klugesherz


  • Farmers are often blamed for depleting the Ogallala-High Plains Aquifer, a critical water resource. But groundwater depletion is a policy choice—one that must be reversed.
  • Government payments create a vicious cycle of overproduction that intensifies water use.
  • Reforming state water policy is also crucial, because water rights are mostly determined by state law.
Farmers are depleting the Ogallala Aquifer because the government pays them to do it
anand purohit via Getty Images

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A slow-moving crisis threatens the U.S. Central Plains, which grow a quarter of the nation’s crops. Underground, the region’s lifeblood—water—is disappearing, placing one of the world’s major food-producing regions at risk.

The Ogallala-High Plains Aquifer is one of the world’s largest groundwater sources, extending from South Dakota down through the Texas Panhandle, across portions of eight states. Its water supports $35 billion in crop production each year.

But most of the aquifer’s supplies are effectively nonrenewable, and farmers are pumping water out of the Ogallala faster than precipitation can recharge it. Between 1900 and 2008, irrigators drained more than 273 million acre-feet from the aquifer, equivalent to two-thirds of Lake Erie. Groundwater depletion is threatening drinking water supplies and undermining local communities already struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis, hospital closures, soaring farm losses, and rising suicide rates.

In Kansas, “Day Zero”—the day wells run dry—has arrived for about 30 percent of the aquifer. Within 50 years, the entire aquifer is expected be 70 percent depleted. Some observers blame this situation on periodic drought. Others point to the individual choices made by farmers, since irrigation accounts for 90 percent of Ogallala groundwater withdrawals. But our research, which focuses largely on the social and legal aspects of water use in agricultural communities, shows that farmers are draining the Ogallala because state and federal policies encourage them to do it.

A production treadmill

At first glance, farmers on the High Plains appear to be doing well. Crop production increased in 2020. Corn, the largest crop in the United States, had a near-record year, and farm incomes increased by 5.7 percent over 2019.

But those figures hide massive government payments to farmers. Federal subsidies increased by a remarkable 65 percent in 2020, totaling $37.2 billion. This sum includes money for lost exports from escalating trade wars, as well as COVID-19-related relief payments. Corn prices were too low to cover the cost of growing it in 2020, so federal subsidies made up the difference.

Our research finds that subsidies put farmers on a treadmill, working harder to produce greater yields, yet draining the resource that supports their livelihood. Government payments create a vicious cycle of overproduction that intensifies water use. Subsidies encourage farmers to expand and to purchase expensive equipment to irrigate larger areas.

With low market prices for many crops, production does not cover expenses on most farms. To stay afloat, many farmers buy or lease more acres. Growing larger amounts floods the market, further reducing crop prices and farm incomes. Subsidies support this cycle.

Few farmers benefit, especially those with small and midsize operations. In a 2019 study of the region’s 234 counties from 1980 to 2010, we found that larger irrigated acreage failed to increase incomes or improve education or health outcomes for residents.

Focus on policy, not farmers

Four decades of federal, state, and local conservation efforts have mainly targeted individual farmers, providing ways for them to voluntarily reduce water use or adopt more water-efficient technologies. While these initiatives are important, they have not stemmed the aquifer’s decline. In our view, what the Ogallala Aquifer region really needs is policy change.

A lot can be done at the federal level, but the first principle should be to “do no harm.” Whenever federal agencies have tried to regulate groundwater, the backlash has been swift and intense, with farm states’ congressional representatives repudiating federal jurisdiction over groundwater.

Nor should Congress propose to eliminate agricultural subsidies, as some environmental organizations and free-market advocates have proposed. Given the thin margins of farming and long-standing political realities, federal support is simply part of modern production agriculture.

With these cautions in mind, three federal initiatives could help ease pressure on farmers to keep expanding production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive farmland from production for at least 10 years, should be enhanced to address groundwater depletion. With new provisions, the program could reduce unsustainable water use by prohibiting expansion of irrigated acreage, permanently retiring marginal lands from irrigation, and linking subsidies to the cultivation of less water-intensive crops such as grain sorghum, industrial hemp, and wheat.

These initiatives could be implemented through the federal farm bill, which also sets funding levels for nonfarm subsidies such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. SNAP payments, which increase needy families’ food budgets, are an important tool for addressing poverty, including rural poverty. Increasing these payments and adding financial assistance to local communities could offset lower tax revenues that result from farming less irrigated acreage.

Changes in federal farm credit and federal farm credit rates could also slow the treadmill. Generous terms promote borrowing for irrigation-related farm equipment. But that debt in turn motivates irrigators to intensify irrigation on existing acres and increase irrigated acreage, further depleting the aquifer. By offering cheaper debt and more flexible borrowing rates for equipment that reduces water use, and withholding similar terms for standard, wasteful equipment, federal farm credit programs could nudge irrigators toward conservation.

The last federal initiative concerns the Internal Revenue Code. Two depreciation provisions in the federal tax code reward excessive irrigation. One allows farmers to take depreciation deductions for declining groundwater levels; this perk should be replaced with a tax credit for irrigators who can stabilize them or even reverse the decline. The code also allows farmers to exploit generous, accelerated depreciation schedules on farm equipment. These depreciation schedules can and should be modified to reward the purchase of equipment that reduces excessive and unnecessary irrigation—such as soil moisture monitoring systems, cover crop-related equipment, and strip and dragline irrigation equipment. Allowing depreciation for wasteful irrigation equipment should be denied.

Amending state water laws

Reforming state water policy is also crucial, because water rights are mostly determined by state law. Water rights are use rights; their owners put water to beneficial use. But as every water lawyer knows, waste is not beneficial use; owning water rights does not grant the legal right to wastewater. Courts have endorsed this logic for over a century, upholding state restrictions on waste, with rulings that allow for adaptation by modifying the definitions of “beneficial use” and “waste” over time. Courts have long emphasized that what we deem to be “reasonable” changes over time. With these long-standing rules as a guide, states can adopt regulations defining certain irrigation practices (such as prewatering and the use of “end guns” on irrigation sprinklers) and certain especially thirsty crops (such as alfalfa, rice, cotton, and corn) as wasteful in certain regions. Reasonable regulations preventing unreasonable water use are not unconstitutional, nor do they qualify as regulatory takings.

Next, in exchange for less pumping, irrigators should be allowed greater flexibility in their water use over the long term. Most western water rights are quantified at the level of annual use, which can tempt irrigators to over-water acreage. But if they can irrigate less or not at all in years with abundant precipitation and low commodity prices, they should be allowed to irrigate more in years with less rain and higher prices—provided they reduce their long-term usage. Granted, it is easier to recommend a policy change than to predict the weather, changes in commodity prices, or the contract and hedging strategies of irrigators. But in the zero-sum game of most of the Ogallala, many irrigators are willing to exchange lower annual yields for a longer aquifer life.

Finally, the private insurance industry could modify its practices. Crop insurance is a common tool across the High Plains, where the semi-arid climate requires irrigation for corn and soybeans, which are generally more profitable than dryland crops such as wheat and grain sorghum. Yet crop insurance can create moral hazards on either side of the policy. Where an irrigated crop has failed, many insurers still require farmers to prove that they have fully watered it through irrigation season—forcing farmers to waste water by sprinkling it on ruined fields. Farmers can abuse the system through the practice of “insurance farming.” As Lucas Bessire explains in Running Out, the practice occurs when farmers plant irrigated crops that they suspect will fail, but do so anyway to collect insurance payments. Insurance companies prefer to insure irrigated over dryland crops because they make higher profits on the former; federal subsidies offset farmers’ higher premiums. Insurance payments are typically calculated based on the average of farmers’ harvests over the past 10 years and not on current conditions. Thus, if an irrigator’s water supply and/or pumping rate declines significantly over that period, he or she can be over-compensated—paid for yields that are no longer possible given the decline in the aquifer. Under certain conditions a failed irrigated crop can be worth more than a successful irrigated one. This result in nonsensical.

“Day Zero” looms across the Ogallala because groundwater pumping in much of the region is a zero-sum game: every acre-foot pumped this year is an acre-foot gone forever. As our research has shown, the vast majority of farmers in the region want to save groundwater, and some irrigators have taken steps in that direction. But they need help from policymakers. Forty years is long enough to learn that the Ogallala Aquifer’s decline is not driven by weather or by individual farmers’ preferences. Depletion is a structural problem embedded in agricultural policies. Groundwater depletion is a policy choice made by federal, state, and local officials.

A version of this article was originally published by The Conversation US on November 9, 2020,