What is the Right Thing?

Mar 15, 2017

Does Lost Dutchman Pond in Northwest Kansas predict the future of water on the High Plains?
Credit KAREN MADORIN / Logan, Kansas

I’m Matthew Sanderson. Today, I’ve been asked to share a few thoughts on the book, Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the High Plains, by William Ashworth.

I approach the issue of water in Kansas from both personal and professional angles. As a fifth-generation Kansan, I grew up hearing about the loss of groundwater in the western part of the state. As a sociologist, I apply the methods of social science to try and understand a puzzle: after nearly 40 years of policy efforts, institutional reforms, economic incentives, and technological innovations, why do we still see declining groundwater levels? It is a deceptively simple question. Ashworth takes us down the path toward answers.

This is not an upbeat narrative. The book starts by telling us that life in the Ogallala region appears as a “Norman Rockwell vision,” but that this vision is “built on a lie.” “We cannot save this lifestyle,” Ashworth tells us, “at least not in this form.” “All we can do,” he says, “is plan for its failure.” The book ends on a rather ominous note, in a chapter entitled, “The Long Farewell.”

The pessimistic tone of the book is not entirely warranted. There are very real efforts, some of which are ongoing for the past 10 years or more, to prolong the life of the aquifer. And there are very real people – good people – working hard to fight what appears to most to be a losing fight to conserve the water, and thus their livelihoods and their communities. As a result of these efforts, more than a few areas are seeing the pace of decline slow down a bit.

But, time is indeed of the essence. A tremendous amount of water has been pumped and exported out of the region. There is still an immense social and cultural momentum driving folks to pump water. Conserving groundwater means asking people to do what has historically been very difficult for humans anywhere and everywhere: to reduce consumption of a resource on which their livelihoods depend; to break away from the behaviors that contributed to the problem, and to do so for the benefit of the future populations, many of whom are not yet alive.

Back to the ending: Ashworth leaves us with a conversation with Ray Brady, a geologist and water district official who has spent a lifetime in the panhandle of Texas. Ashworth asks Brady what he thinks the place will look like in 50 years. Brady responds, “I don’t know.” “Did we do the right thing?” Brady asks, rhetorically. “I don’t know,” he says, answering his own question. Then he asks, “What is the right thing? What do you do with all the people?”

Maybe it will not be possible to save the Ogallala. I am not yet ready to admit defeat, but if it is not possible, we owe it to ourselves to use every tool at our disposal to understand why it was so hard in this region to save the one resource on which all of life depends, so that our children do not repeat our mistakes here or elsewhere. For if “water is life,” as Ashworth argues, and it cannot be sustained, what can we sustain? Ashworth’s book points us, I think, in the right direction, toward questions that do not yet have answers, questions like those of Ray Brady’s.

This is Matthew Sanderson for HPPR.

Some predict the future will look more like the past.
Credit PAUL PHILLIPS / Hays, Kansas