Giving Compass' Take:

• Corie Brown explains that Kansas farmers are running out of water due to a lack of regulations on the use of the Ogallala Aquifer. 

• How can wealthy philanthropists better align their work around the needs of farmers and other struggling groups? 

• Learn about tackling water and agriculture challenges together through impact investing

The Ogallala Aquifer is a massive, subterranean formation of semipermeable rock that spreads out under eight states, from Wyoming to Texas and New Mexico. Water pumped up from that thousands-year-old, waterlogged, sand-and-gravel sponge turned the western third of the state from a Dust Bowl disaster into an agricultural promised land. A report from the Kansas Department of Agriculture calls the Ogallala the “the largest, most economically important ground water source in Kansas,” and the primary source of water for all uses in the western portion of the state. The problem is, water is being used much faster than the Ogallala can replenish itself.

A 2013 study published by The National Academy of Sciences found that the Ogallala has already been drained of 30 percent of its water.

“At current rates, the Ogallala will essentially be unusable by farmers, both in terms of quantity and quality, within this generation,” says Patricia Clark, community relations manager at Kansas Leadership Center and the Kansas director of USDA Rural Development during the Obama Administration.

Kansas agriculture, then, faces an existential choice: It can cut back water use voluntarily now and face a decline in farm productivity, or it can continue to ignore the problem and face far more dire consequences as the water runs out.

With a problem so serious, I expected to find state environmental groups fighting for strict conservation measures, and legislators proposing new laws limiting water use. But there is none of that. The state government is MIA. There are no rules or regulations, no reliable leadership. Thanks to the steep business tax cuts made in 2012 under the state’s former Republican Governor, Sam Brownback, which are widely recognized as having been catastrophic and were largely repealed this year, the state is in crisis management mode, with little ability to enact bold reforms. There is nothing in place that would compel the state’s farmers—legally, or by any other means—to use the aquifer’s reserves more sustainably.

The rural Kansans I talked with say they care too much about the future of their land to fail to protect the Ogallala. The vitality of their soils is precious to them. These farmers assure me that Kansas will come to embrace sustainable agricultural practices like no-till farming, cover crops, and other conservation measures, completely transforming their relationship to the land over the next few decades. They’ll have to, the logic goes, because the stakes are too high and the fallout so potentially cataclysmic.

It would be easy to blame the current situation on the hands-off, “don’t tread on me” attitude toward government intervention that is so common in the state. But the fact is that Kansas’s dilemma is more than cultural. It’s the result of a strategy that has been aided and abetted by proponents of radical free-market capitalism, a philosophy pushed hard by the state’s wealthiest resident: Charles Koch, CEO of Koch Industries.

Read the full article about Kansas farmers running out of water by Corie Brown at The New Food Economy.