The United States uses 82.3 billion gallons of fresh groundwater per day, according to the National Ground Water Association. Groundwater is used for numerous applications, including public water supply, irrigation, farming, manufacturing, and thermoelectric power. However, this dependency in so many facets of society threatens to deplete our supply.

“Groundwater is being overexploited in many areas,” said Landon Marston, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. “This threatens the social and economic viability of people that depend on groundwater.”

To counteract groundwater depletion, communities using irrigation have begun to develop community-level rules to regulate use and management to preserve the aquifer and their livelihoods. The initial success of these self-governance regimes has led to rapid spread as more communities adopt this approach. Communities with such rules in western Kansas and south-central Colorado have benefited from decreased groundwater pumping and increased storage. However, researchers note that these successes developed under ideal conditions with stable crop markets and a relatively wet period. What would happen if the market faltered, or if the weather changed?

“There is an urgency to address these questions,” said Marston. “Groundwater depletion continues to worsen in many areas and these governing rules are largely untested but are continuing to spread to other communities.”

Marston leads a multi-institutional team of researchers that was recently awarded a nearly $1.6 million grant by the National Science Foundation to develop new theories of how socio-environment diversity determines the effectiveness, resilience, and adaptability of groundwater self-governance regimes. Their research examines the viability of these regimes under current conditions but also seeks to understand how they would behave in the event of social or environmental changes.

“There are still many questions remaining regarding the long-term effectiveness, resilience, and adaptability of these self-governance regimes under droughts or volatile commodity markets,” Marston said. “There can be potential problems of one-size-fits-all approaches that can undermine system sustainability and resilience.”

By exploring these challenges, the five-year grant aims to help groundwater-dependent agriculture communities create better management strategies. The project brings together four academic institutions – Virginia Tech, Kansas Geological Survey, Purdue University, and Colorado School of Mines.

Marston’s team will study the communities in Kansas and Colorado that have rapidly adopted self-governance schemes to manage the groundwater commons. The rapid spread between regions may undermine long-term resilience because the groundwater management rules do not account for the unique social and environmental contexts of differing areas.

“It is one thing to write down rules that seem good on paper,” said Steven Smith, assistant professor of economics and business at Colorado School of Mines. “Just like the rules of the road do not explain actual driving behavior, we do not expect that groundwater rules will be followed to a T.”

This project will help researchers and communities better understand and model how irrigators actually adapt and behave in response to new rules so they can better assess their effect on the community’s water and food systems.

“By investigating the social and physical aspects of groundwater sustainability together, we are hoping to figure out the key features that lead to success in these areas and how those can be translated to other communities,” said Sam Zipper, an assistant scientist for the Kansas Geological Survey, a division of the University of Kansas. 

San Luis Valley
Farmers from San Luis Valley, a major agricultural center and the nation's second leading potato producer, gathered in 2019 to discuss how to best manage their shared aquifer. Photo by Landon Marston.

Due in large part to the demands of irrigating cropland, groundwater depletion is a growing concern in many areas throughout the United States. If left unchecked, groundwater depletion can increase pumping costs and deteriorate water quality.

“Continuing unsustainable groundwater use will threaten farmers’ livelihoods, lead to the collapse of rural communities, and impact national and global food supplies,” said Marston. “This project investigates promising stakeholder-driven solutions to groundwater depletion.”

The team will collect, synthesize, and analyze social and environmental data within the specific communities to better understand how their self-governance institutions function. The multi-method approach will include public document analysis, structured surveys, qualitative interviews, and behavioral experiments. Environmental and social data will be integrated within a modeling framework to test the effectiveness, resilience, and adaptability of different groundwater governance regimes, particularly under changing economic and climatic conditions.

Smith will conduct farmer interviews and surveys to understand how they make irrigation and farming decisions under different self-governance regimes.

“Self-governance of the irrigator community appears to have the best chance of achieving meaningful pumping reductions that would extend the lifespan of the aquifers and the agricultural production that they support,” said James Butler, Jr., senior scientist at the Kansas Geological Survey. “The interviews and surveys will help us explore which self-governance systems are best for achieving these reductions and how transportable these systems are from one area to another.”

Additionally, the team will develop a web browser-based behavioral experiment that tests how farmers respond in specific scenarios, allowing the team to identify behavioral responses that are difficult to isolate in real life. After the experiment is developed, it will be tested on undergraduate students, to ensure validity in a controlled setting, prior to being conducted in the field either in-person or online.

By involving students in the experimental testing, the researchers hope to ultimately work toward solving society’s sustainability issues. The project will train three undergraduate and four graduate students as well as a postdoctoral fellow in the science of socio-environmental systems. Students will be taught how to combine theories and methods from multiple disciplines to find a new approach to understanding the water cycle, explained  David Yu, assistant professor of civil engineering at Purdue University.

“Our understanding of the physics of soil and water flow outpaces our understanding of how human decisions shape the water cycle,” said Zipper. “To meet the current and future water sustainability challenges, students need to be comfortable thinking about both physical and social aspects of the water cycle, and our project will provide this integrative training to students at the undergraduate and graduate levels.”

Data collected for this project will build on numerous existing environmental datasets, allowing the team to better understand the hydrologic, agronomic, and environmental processes occurring in the study areas. The areas in both Kansas and Colorado have annual groundwater use data obtained through flowmeters on pumping wells, which can provide information on water rights, annual water use, and relevant ancillary data. Marston, Zipper, and Butler will integrate these data within a model that represents the coupled interactions between farmers, irrigated croplands, and the underlying aquifer.  

The team’s overall goal is to advance theory on self-governance of groundwater commons and create new tools that can be transferred within and beyond the study communities, to benefit the entire nation.

“We need to act proactively to ensure we are able to produce food for a growing population under the prospect of decreasing water supplies due to climate change,” Marston said. 

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