Sustainable Practices in the High Plains: A Study of Water Conservation Efforts and Well Ownership
University of Kansas
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Extreme demands for crop irrigation and droughts have stressed water supplies in Kansas, making the state increasingly reliant on its underground reserves of freshwater. As precipitation and the availability of surface water become less reliable, aquifers (reservoirs of groundwater) remain one of the only sources of water in the High Plains. Growing demands for water are tapping aquifers beyond their natural rates of replenishment, which has profound implications for sustaining communities in a region prone to drought. This dissertation investigates the water conservation efforts, environmental priorities, and water supply awareness of Kansas well owners, a key social group whose actual and potential water usage is pivotal to understanding and safeguarding groundwater formations. My main research goal is to learn how the reliance on different water supply infrastructures influences water usage. The central research question is: Does owning and using a well change the propensity to conserve water? This is a relevant question because previous research investigating the reproduction of conservation behaviors has not adequately explored how systems of water provision contribute to resource management decisions. To address this omission, I constructed one of the only datasets of well owners used in social scientific research by surveying well owners and non-well owners throughout Kansas (n = 864). Well owners are a key social group whose actual and potential water usage is pivotal to safeguarding groundwater formations, and researching well owners’ conservation efforts will be key to aquifer preservation and wider water management policies. Previous research has outlined how some demographic predictors like political views, age, and sex are tentatively correlated with pro-environmental behaviors; however, my work finds that a household’s water supply moderates several relationships associated with water conservation. This finding suggests that infrastructure contextualizes the adoption of conservation habits, and Kansans’ notions of environmentalism are recalibrated by their systems of water provision. The project provides quantitative and qualitative evidence that well owners embody a form of “groundwater citizenship,” an ethic of conserving and staying mindful of aquifers. Through this research, I seek to identify how infrastructure influences the decision to adopt environmentally-conscious watering practices, which will assist the development of more effective groundwater management policies, and, in turn, improve drought adaptation measures.
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- Sociology Dissertations and Theses 
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