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Regulating the Ogallala: Paradox and Ambiguity in Western Kansas

The Economics of Ecology, Exchange, and Adaptation: Anthropological Explorations

ISBN: 978-1-78635-228-6, eISBN: 978-1-78635-227-9

Publication date: 1 September 2016



To illuminate the underlying logic of western Kansas farmers’ decisions to irrigate at unsustainable rates and the state’s regulatory policies and practices that enable depletion of the Ogallala aquifer.


Ethnographic interviewing of 39 western Kansas farmers, state water management personnel, and archival research.


Farmers occupy an ambiguous position as petty capitalists who focus attention on their own farms with seasonal planning horizons, and they hold a view of “good stewardship” that melds economic and noneconomic considerations, and that provides a rationale for unsustainable irrigation practices. The state resolves the contradiction between the finite groundwater resource and ideological commitments to economic growth by devolving responsibility for water management to groundwater users.

Research limitations/implications

While the small sample size is likely to be representative of the larger pool of irrigators, further research with other farmers representative of the region will be necessary to verify findings.

Social implications

Depletion of the Ogallala aquifer contributes to farm consolidation and community decline, and the ecological costs will leave future farmers and remaining communities without the benefits of groundwater. Western Kansas will likely have to revert to a system of dryland farming.




Funding for this project was provided by the National Science Foundations’ Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), No. EPS-0903806. We are grateful to the National Science Foundation, our colleagues at the Kansas Geological Survey, the University of Kansas, K-State University, and Emporia State University. We wish to thank the reviewers for their thoughtful and insightful questions and suggestions, Don Stull for his editorial advice and comments on an earlier draft, John Peck for his insight into Kansas water law, and the Kansas farmers who invited us into their homes and taught us about water.


Gibson, J.W. and Gray, B.J. (2016), "Regulating the Ogallala: Paradox and Ambiguity in Western Kansas", The Economics of Ecology, Exchange, and Adaptation: Anthropological Explorations (Research in Economic Anthropology, Vol. 36), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 3-32.



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