Aquifer Depletion and Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons”

I received a lengthy response to “When the Well Is Dry,” my 15 Feb. 2010 post on aquifers.

This comment prompted me to return to the issue of water. I thought most of us know of the plight of the Ogallala and understand it as a well-documented example of how man can–and does–disrupt natural systems of the earth. However, it looks like many are not familiar with aquifers.

Again, I chose the Ogallala aquifer as my example because everyone from scientists to casual observers has concluded the aquifer is being depleted by man. This is simply fact. Everyone who wants to know knows that we started pumping heavily in the 1940s and then pumped like crazy in the 1960s. We are still pumping too much. Nebraska is still doing kinda OK, but Texas is hurting, and so are other many other areas above the aquifer.

Again, I repeat, MAN disrupted a natural cycle. Fact. Like the Ogallala, many of the world’s other aquifers are at or near a tipping point. I thought the links provided in my original post gave substantial, cumulative support for this point.

However, this reader’s response made it clear that some lack experience with or knowledge of aquifer geology and even with the concept of aquifer depletion, something High Plains and Midwest farmers have wrestled with for several decades now.


I further hope my answers below will clarify the situation for the person who commented and asked questions and for others who might not hear about aquifer depletion on a nearly daily basis.

Here are some of the comments and questions, followed by my answers.

THE RESPONDER WROTE: Regarding the aquifer depletion specifically, is that phrase even accurate?

MY ANSWER: Yes, that’s the usual term.

The topic “Aquifer depletion” appears in the Encyclopedia of the Earth. The first line states,

“Scores of countries are overpumping aquifers as they struggle to satisfy their growing water needs, including each of the big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States.”

Here’s the link again:

I hope everyone reads this entry. It’s short and it’s peer reviewed.

(For a definition of peer reviewed, click this link:

THE RESPONDER: The aquifer is rechargeable, it recharges from precipitation.

MY ANSWER: Yes, the aquifer is rechargeable, but you may want to review my original post and the click on the blue links. Many of these feature university level presentations on how recharge rates affect the level of the aquifer. The Ogallala was once filled with water that entered its system THOUSANDS of years ago. Much of the water being extracted is fossil water.

Yes, water is still entering the system from recent precipitation and slowly seeping through its rock formations. Much of the water currently entering the system won’t be available for use by man for years, decades, centuries.

Perhaps a little fable will be helpful to envision what an aquifer does.

Once upon a time there was a magic, antique bathtub hidden under a house. The bathtub’s drain was plugged and it slowly filled from its leaky faucet. Unnoticed, it finally filled up and overflowed. The water escaping from the tub seeped into the ground and continued on its way, finally exiting the ground as a magic spring miles and miles away.

Sometimes the faucet drip would slow or even stop, so the overflow would slow or even stop too, but the magic bathtub stayed full because it was protected, hidden under the house. After a time though, the drip would start again and the tub would overflow once more.

One day, the woman who lived in this old house in the dry plains of Sasnak ventured under her house and discovered the magic bathtub. She realized she could use the water in the bathtub to grow a garden. She planted a few rows of corn. They thrived. So she planted more to sell back east.

All was going well until, hearing of her magic bathtub, her neighbors looked around and many discovered they too had magic bathtubs under their houses. Soon they were all bailing water from their bathtub at a ferocious rate. The level of water in the bathtubs began to sink because they were bailing out more water than the leaky faucets put in.

The falling water level in her bathtub alarmed the first woman, but her corn was almost ready for harvest and people back east were counting on her. After much worry, she bailed out just enough water to get her corn to harvest. She stopped bailing water from her bathtub and waited, hoping her bathtub would refill for the next growing season.

Unfortunately, next spring she discovered there was not even enough water in the bathtub to keep her corn seedlings alive. It was the same for all her neighbors. None of them meant any harm. They thought that since their bathtubs were magic, there was no way they could drain them. They thought they’d just fill up again right away.

They were wrong.

The end.

That’s where we are headed. As the links in my original post show, the water levels in the Ogallala are dropping. I don’t know of a single authority that says otherwise, and I don’t know of a single farmer who denies that people have caused this problem.

For decades, the land brought forth water hungry crops, but we pumped too much. Period.

In fact, in some places the discharge springs have dried up. Here’s support from Texas Parks and Recreation.

THE RESPONDER: If the rate of recharge has dropped, it would be due to a decrease in precipitation for that region, unless you have specific data that verifies a spike in greedy human usage. Otherwise a drop in a recharge rate would be due to drought, a naturally recurring event of which we have no control . . . .

MY ANSWER: The specific data is EVERYWHERE. The links in my original post offer facts and figures on the rate of decline of the Ogallala. It varies from place to place, of course–Nebraska is in much better shape than Texas, for example–but all indicators are going DOWN. If my links don’t convince you, hit Google. Hit a college database if you want the gory details.

For here, I’ll just add a tidbit from the authoritative Water Encyclopedia: Science and Issues:

The Ogallala Aquifer (shaded area) [on a map I’m not including] is in a state of overdraft owing to the current rate of water use. If withdrawals continue unabated, the aquifer could be depleted in only a few decades.

I think one of the sources I used on my original post said that were all the pumping to stop the aquifer would refill in about 35–or was it 38?–years. Does it matter? Is it clear this is a dire situation?

If you don’t want to click the blue Water Encyclopedia link above, here it is again:

Man has put the sustainability of the aquifer in doubt.

However, I would not call the over-pumping a result of greed so much as a harmless desire to make an honest living. It’s once again the “Tragedy of the Commons.” When researchers finally realized how severe the over-pumping was, some farmers had been irrigating that way for a long, long time. Remember the aquifer was discovered in 1899.

We are talking unintended consequences, folks. We all need to realize the results of this phenomenon.

Definition here

Article here:

Or here:

Back to work on my post on soil erosion.

If nothing else, this revisit led me to a copy of Garrett Hardin’s famous essay. William Catton refers to his theories several times in Overshoot, but I couldn’t remember Hardin’s name. I’m glad that this topic led me to a copy of his essay.



4 Responses to “Aquifer Depletion and Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons””

  1. estetica Says:

    Nice post! Really well written. thanks!

  2. Nicholas C. Arguimbau Says:

    Nice post. Thank you. I recently did a piece on peak oil that was widely circulated. Google [“Nicholas C. Argjuimbau” “imminent crash”] for numerous links. I’m working on a similar piece on peak food. The “tragedy of the commons” analysis is compelling.

  3. Nicholas C. Arguimbau Says:

    Erratum. I gave a Google link and in it misspellt my own name. There’s no “j.” Sorry.

  4. Nicholas C. Arguimbau Says:

    As of 7/31, my Peak food” article is on Countercurrents. Feel free to read.

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