The University of Arizona

From desert to breadbasket…to desert again? A metabolic rift in the High Plains Aquifer

Matthew R. Sanderson, R. Scott Frey


The High Plains region of the U.S. is one of the most important agricultural regions in the world. Much agricultural production in this semi-arid region, however, depends on the consumption of nonrenewable groundwater from the High Plains Aquifer. Although the problem has drawn significant attention from policymakers and citizens for over forty years, depletion of the Aquifer has worsened. Why does depletion persist despite widespread and ongoing concern? We explore this conundrum by placing the region into an historical, political-economic context. We focus specifically on the case of Western Kansas, and argue that the contemporary problem is rooted in the ways in which this region was articulated into broader circuits of capital and exchange. Private capital and the state incorporated the region as a source of primary raw materials, mainly agricultural products. Water-dependent agricultural resource extraction opened up a metabolic rift in the hydrological cycle that has only been exacerbated over time through unequal ecological exchange with more politically and economically central places. These structural dynamics associated with political-economic incorporation have impeded efforts to develop more sustainable uses of groundwater consumption in the region.

Key words: groundwater management, metabolic rift, High Plains, Kansas

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