Articles | Volume 21, issue 12
Research article
07 Dec 2017
Research article |  | 07 Dec 2017

Conserving the Ogallala Aquifer in southwestern Kansas: from the wells to people, a holistic coupled natural–human model

Joseph A. Aistrup, Tom Bulatewicz, Laszlo J. Kulcsar, Jeffrey M. Peterson, Stephen M. Welch, and David R. Steward

Abstract. The impact of water policy on conserving the Ogallala Aquifer in Groundwater Management District 3 (GMD3) in southwestern Kansas is analyzed using a system-level theoretical approach integrating agricultural water and land use patterns, changing climate, economic trends, and population dynamics. In so doing, we (1) model the current hyper-extractive coupled natural–human (CNH) system, (2) forecast outcomes of policy scenarios transitioning the current groundwater-based economic system toward more sustainable paths for the social, economic, and natural components of the integrated system, and (3) develop public policy options for enhanced conservation while minimizing the economic costs for the region's communities. The findings corroborate previous studies showing that conservation often leads initially to an expansion of irrigation activities. However, we also find that the expanded presence of irrigated acreage reduces the impact of an increasingly drier climate on the region's economy and creates greater long-term stability in the farming sector along with increased employment and population in the region. On the negative side, conservation lowers the net present value of farmers' current investments and there is not a policy scenario that achieves a truly sustainable solution as defined by Peter H. Gleick. This study reinforces the salience of interdisciplinary linked CNH models to provide policy prescriptions to untangle and address significant environmental policy issues.

Short summary
A system-level theoretical approach is developed which utilizes OpenMI methods to study the collective impacts of groundwater depletion in one of the world's most important regions for agricultural production (the congressional district with the highest historical cash value in the USA). Water policy is analyzed to forecast groundwater depletion across changes in human activity and climate, and the economic and societal impacts are provided to inform public policy and management.