This summer, Kansas streams had “less volume of water than at any time since records have been kept,” including the Dust Bowl years, said Steve Adams, natural resource coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
Moreover, many state reservoirs are 10 to 20 feet or more below normal levels, making them unusable for recreation and threatening city water supplies.
Such problems aren’t simply a result of less rainfall, Adams said; in some cases, through heavy use, “we’re making more demands than what the water resource can sustain.”
He continues by explaining that “we need to be thinking in terms of sustainability.” And the Eagle concludes that “If there is no water, Kansas has no future.”
The legislature has taken some good steps, enhancing existing programs that encourage farmers to retire irrigation rights, and funding technical programs to enhance the lifespan of existing reservoirs. But the real solution has to be a change in the way water is allocated and used.
Part of the problem is the way that water is historically allocated to users in Kansas and in many of the Western States. The Department of Agriculture explains:
The right to use Kansas water is based on the principle of “first in time — first in right.” In times of shortage, that means the earliest water right or permit holders have first rights to use the water.
The standard solution to the allocation of limited resources (fish in the sea, grazing land, mineable ores) is to create a market for the resource. Guaranteeing access to some users creates an incentive for them to abuse the shared resource. Those with later demands have increasing interests in conservation as they get further from the front of the line. A market evens that interest. When the cost of an extra acre-foot of water varies, there’s more reason to consider conservation at key moments than if you will be guaranteed access to the water.
As I understand the current system, people with water permits are allocated a certain amount of water per acre, and once they have their permit, are basically free to use any amount up to (and possibly above) that rate. Excessive overuse can result in punishment, but the enforcement system is pretty unimpressive.
In these sorts of situations, ecologists and ecological economists generally prefer to create self-enforcing systems, ways to incorporate the costs of overuse into the daily calculus of the people overusing the resource. In this case, spreading the ownership rights and obligations more widely would be a good start. Granting users some percentage of the total water output as opposed to a constant quantity would probably also be wise.
In fisheries, a lot of effort has been developed to show that it’s better to regulate fishing effort rather than total take. Constant effort harvesting will produce fish populations that can still return to equilibrium from above or below the target size, stably regulating populations. Constant quota harvesting will produce an unstable equilibrium, one where any deviation away from the target will reinforce itself, what Roughgarden and Smith liken to “balancing a ball on a dome.” The latter is closer to what we have in Kansas water policy (though it’s worth noting that water and fish are not the same, fish reproduce, water doesn’t).