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Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains

Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains

Автор Lucas Bessire

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Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains

Автор Lucas Bessire

3.5/5 (8 оценки)
323 страницы
2 часа
18 мая 2021 г.


Finalist for the National Book Award
An intimate reckoning with aquifer depletion in America's heartland

The Ogallala aquifer has nourished life on the American Great Plains for millennia. But less than a century of unsustainable irrigation farming has taxed much of the aquifer beyond repair. The imminent depletion of the Ogallala and other aquifers around the world is a defining planetary crisis of our times. Running Out offers a uniquely personal account of aquifer depletion and the deeper layers through which it gains meaning and force.

Anthropologist Lucas Bessire journeyed back to western Kansas, where five generations of his family lived as irrigation farmers and ranchers, to try to make sense of this vital resource and its loss. His search for water across the drying High Plains brings the reader face to face with the stark realities of industrial agriculture, eroding democratic norms, and surreal interpretations of a looming disaster. Yet the destination is far from predictable, as the book seeks to move beyond the words and genres through which destruction is often known. Instead, this journey into the morass of eradication offers a series of unexpected discoveries about what it means to inherit the troubled legacies of the past and how we can take responsibility for a more inclusive, sustainable future.

An urgent and unsettling meditation on environmental change, Running Out is a revelatory account of family, complicity, loss, and what it means to find your way back home.

18 мая 2021 г.

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"Both gripping page-turner and gentle mediation, Lucas Bessire’s Running Out is an all-American history of farming and ranching life on the high plains as the water slowly disappears from the parched and much-abused landscape. Rich with depth and pathos and insight, this unique volume is a genuine pleasure to read."

—WENDY WILLIAMS, New York Times bestselling author of The Horse and The Language of Butterflies

"Running Out is the single most important account of the aquifer depletion crisis in western Kansas. Bessire weaves together the threads of culture, science, history, and personal generational experience to show how the crisis developed and why it continues, and points the way forward for reversing this devastating trend."

—CONNIE OWEN, water rights attorney and director of the Kansas Water Office

Lucas Bessire’s poignant critique of dramatic groundwater decline in southwest Kansas and resistance to addressing it offers perspective on our failure to confront climate change.… This tale on the ebbing of the Ogallala Aquifer is a valuable addition to the literature of aquifer depletion, compelling for its insider’s perspective and probing of contradictory human decisions that discount the future for immediate reward.

—DENNIS DIMICK, Cleveland Review of Books

To try to get a grip on the cultural forces behind the [aquifer] depletion, [Bessire] began interviewing stakeholders in the vicinity of his family’s property and wrote this very personal account, which includes both analysis of complicity and elegiac passages about his homeland’s history and our dry future.… Stirring.

—FLORA TAYLOR, American Scientist

"Highly recommended.… Bessire’s achievement in Running Out … lies in his ability to open to the reader the water-consciousness of the people of the region.… Reading it is time well spent."

—MICHAEL J. SMITH, Nebraska History

"Eminently readable.… The sense of loss that necessarily pervades Running Out is balanced by Bessire’s lyrical prose, whose consistently crisp beauty serves as a welcome respite."

—ED MEEK, Arts Fuse

Required reading for every environmental scientist.

—DAVID DENT, International Journal of Environmental Studies

"Bessire’s Running Out masterfully shifts among scales and genres and in doing so lets the personal, the historic, and the geologic reveal their intimacies and competing urgencies. A beautiful and unusual book, and wholly original."

—RIVKA GALCHEN, author of Little Labors

"Lucas Bessire writes like a close witness to more than 150 years of ecological and human devastation on the Kansas plains. His distinctly American voice is engaging and vivid, mixing deeply rooted personal and national history, poetic observation, lucid despair, and calm yet stirring outrage. Running Out is destined to be a contemporary classic."

—FRANCISCO GOLDMAN, author of Monkey Boy

Powerful. Bessire tells a tragic and infuriating story of massive, earth-shattering loss juxtaposed with the cultivated world and the human search for meaning and purpose.

—KATHLEEN STEWART, author of A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an Other America

A marvelous achievement. Weaving a thread of human decency through a blanket of unrecoverable loss, Bessire delivers a damning message about our great incapacity to respond to an imminent crisis and our misplaced faith in an agricultural economic treadmill.

—LOKA ASHWOOD, author of For-Profit Democracy: Why the Government Is Losing the Trust of Rural America


running out

in search of water on the high plains

lucas bessire



Copyright © 2021 by Lucas Bessire

Discussion Questions Copyright © 2022 by Princeton University Press

Princeton University Press is committed to the protection of copyright and the intellectual property our authors entrust to us. Copyright promotes the progress and integrity of knowledge. Thank you for supporting free speech and the global exchange of ideas by purchasing an authorized edition of this book. If you wish to reproduce or distribute any part of it in any form, please obtain permission.

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First paperback edition, with Discussion Questions, 2022

Paperback ISBN 978-0-691-21643-0

Cloth ISBN 978-0-691-21264-7

ISBN (e-book) 978-0-691-21265-4

Version 1.0

British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available

Editorial: Fred Appel and James Collier

Production Editorial: Jenny Wolkowicki

Text design: Karl Spurzem

Jacket/Cover design: Daniel Benneworth-Gray

Production: Erin Suydam

Publicity: Maria Whelan and Kathryn Stevens

Copyeditor: Maia Vaswani

Jacket/Cover credit: Shutterstock

For Tony and Lila Fern


Map of the Ogallala Aquifer, 2015viii

Map of the Little Rock Houseix

Note to the Readerxi









List of Illustrations237


The Ogallala Aquifer, 2015

The Little Rock House


The Ogallala aquifer underlies a vast expanse of America’s heartlands. It was created by ancient seas buried when the western mountains began to rise at the dawn of time. Under the waters are the bedrocks of genesis. Over them sediments from a million years of wind mingle with the elemental forms of lives past and future. The deep waters are the fulcrum, the mystery, the source. Within them are traced all possibilities.

For ages the waters lay covered by earth. They rested, deep and cold, beyond human design. It took less than eighty years for settlers like my great-grandfather to pump most of the groundwater to the surface. Moisture sucked from Ogallala sands fueled a feverish transformation of the Plains. The lines of industrial agribusiness covered the land and drained its secrets. Today, the Ogallala aquifer supports around one-sixth of the world’s annual grain produce. Withdrawals from the aquifer depths account for one-third of all irrigation in the United States. Almost all of the groundwater is used for irrigating industrially raised crops. The aquifer, however, has long been unable to keep up with the demands, as most areas recharge far more slowly than the water is pumped out. Overuse has taxed the larger High Plains aquifer system beyond repair. Now the timeless groundwaters are running dry. This book addresses the depletion of the aquifer, in all of its complexity and incoherence.

The future of Plains society hangs in the balance. The stakes run deeper than that. Depletion condenses the most urgent conundrums of our times into a single drama. On the High Plains, it blurs the boundaries between the planetary and the personal. In my case, it requires confronting my complicity in the present. The following account is my attempt to reckon with what I find intolerable about the world at a moment when it feels as though something vital is running out. It recounts a search for sustenance among destruction’s seemingly intractable roots. The search began in 2016, with a two-year journey back to my ancestral homelands in southwest Kansas.

These returns brought me face to face with the personal registers of depletion as well as its systemic determinants. But I soon learned depletion is not so easy to grasp. It never appeared where or how I expected. Depletion is more than the sum of its apparent parts. It is most elusive in the places it should be most obvious. And it is most clearly articulated when it remains implicit. Its irrationality germinates beneath the surface of seemingly unrelated events. As such, it is most accurately perceived sidelong, from the corner of the mind’s eye. It begins and ends as an intimate language passed down over generations.

Among other things, this means many scholarly analyses miss the point. In trying to make sense of depletion, most explanations focus on only one of its many contradictory facets: management, science, technology, belief, historical antecedents, and so on. In doing so, they are unable to convey the beating heart of the issue, let alone alter its rhythms. Depletion always exceeds any single narrative of it. This creates a paradox. Many academic attempts to model, chart, or systematize its causes and effects lend momentum to the expenditure they aim to protest and then end up depleted, too. Best-selling literary narratives that reduce rural personhood to flattened stereotypes and the predictable plot lines of characters known in advance are even worse. How, then, can we account for the overwhelming crises of the contemporary?

Depletion requires its own genre to approximate. This book aims to contribute to such a genre. The structure and content reflect this aim. The narrative approaches its object of analysis by conjuring its form. Like an aquifer, the account is composed of many sediments. Each granular piece evokes a distinct way that depletion is inhabited and the minor potentials for recharge it may hold. The sediments are vertically stacked in layers. They are patchy and unevenly spread. Repetitive themes run between them: memory and amnesia, homelands and exile, holding on and letting go. At times, the layers flow together and connect. At others, they are interrupted and blocked. This pattern of blockage and flow constitutes the book’s conceptual argument.

I leave theoretical exposition for other venues. My concern here is to write as closely as possible to the core of an urgent and inchoate problem. That means trying to gesture to the range of apparently disconnected elements that drive aquifer depletion and tie it to other domains of loss and resilience. These elements are at such odds with one another that they wildly exceed any singular analytic register or voice. Pinning down one dynamic allows others to proliferate or expand. It is this contradictory nature that defines depletion as a lived experience and makes it such a perplexing challenge to understand. In what follows, I attempt to invoke how these oppositional elements are held in generative tension in order to subvert narrow accounts of environmental loss and gesture to more sustainable ways ahead.

This allows the book’s central question to surface: How can we take responsibility for the future we are now making? It has taken me a long time to realize how prior choices are calcified in depletive substrates that, in turn, exert real force on people’s lives. These choices condition our possibilities for finding common ground amid partisan divides, interpretive failures, and eroding democracies. Decisions now being made around the aquifer will delimit future lives in turn, whether we admit it or not. Taking responsibility for what we will leave behind is the book’s motive, challenge, burden, and central pivot.

It is obvious that there are no quick fixes. Readers hoping for an easy solution or clear through line will be disappointed. The malaise runs deep. Any pursuit of the aquifer crisis means jettisoning much taken-for-granted common sense about people and politics. It requires drilling down through residues of destruction into the mythic masks of the American frontier and back up to the surface where the waters evaporate into mirages that hover at horizon’s edge. The following account commits to these mirages not to dispel them but to more viscerally convey their illusory realities. That means it is equal parts analysis of complicity, elegy for a dry future, unreliable witness, handful of rubble, charter of resilience, and portrait of a lost homeland pieced together from dreams. Through its incomplete imagery I reach out to the ghosts of my ancestors and to the generations to come.


On the high plains of western Kansas, there is no clear line between water and second chances. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was in search of both when I turned my Prius off a two-lane highway and onto the washboard gravel that led back to the farm.

After fifteen years, the land matched my memories of it. I recalled precisely the vault of space, the circled sky the most dominant feature and the sun a physical weight. Grids of stubble that rotate every half-mile, from corn to wheat to sorghum to corn. Each field a parable about boys who become men by learning to plow every inch, by knowing what not to know, by never leaving or by never coming back.

The road dead-ends at the breaks of the now dry Cimarron River, where the tablelands fall abruptly to a ribbon of shortgrass nestled in a river bend with sage sand hills rising to the south. Here stands the Little Rock House. Named after century-old concrete walls and corrals, it was once my great-grandfather’s cattle camp. It is where I spent most of my adolescent summers and it is where my father has returned to live out his years amid broken flints and buried bison bones.

He answered the metal door in his preferred retirement getup, a SpongeBob bathrobe and a silverbelly Stetson. At that moment, I realized the only thing I could say for certain was that he was born to this gusty land. Before, he liked to keep his distance. By then, he had little choice. And sometimes distance is as close to caring for each other as a father and a son can get.

I stayed one night. Like always, I slept in the fixed-up barn, not the house. When the irrigation motor woke me up, I knew I’d been gone too long. The unmuffled Case engine sits a mile-and-a-cornfield from the Little Rock House. The big motor pumps 1,400 gallons of crystalline groundwater per minute nearly every day from early spring to late fall straight into the desiccating wind. Its steady drone was the backdrop to my childhood summers on the farm, as ordinary as the heat and flies and storms. But that first night back, its ceaseless rhythm was distracting.

Because it draws from the water sands under the former riverbed, this motor was one of the few wells in this corner of the Plains still pumping at full capacity. After eight decades of intensive irrigation, other wells in the county had dwindled. Many had gone dry. In 2014, the well at the Little Rock House hit bottom. My father redrilled and luckily hit water farther down. Since then he’d grown increasingly alarmed about the dropping water table. He asked around. Neighbors confirmed his suspicions. During my visit, my father told me about a nearly incredible scale of aquifer decline.

His stories lingered after I left. Over the following weeks, I checked out my father’s claims. The situation was worse than he suspected. I learned that southwest Kansas is a front line of the global water crisis.¹ The planet’s supply of freshwater is unable to meet the demands that intensive agriculture places on it. It is predicted to only get worse. Pollution and population growth combine to make access to safe water an urgent concern for people across the world.

Groundwater, in particular, is under threat.² Worldwide, billions rely on it as their primary source of water. More than half of the water used in agriculture is mined from underground. As industrial extraction grows and the planet warms, these strains on groundwater increase, especially in those dry regions that are becoming hotter and drier. At the same time, groundwater supplies are poorly monitored and managed. Oversight is often nonexistent. Far more groundwater is pumped than can be naturally replenished.


The result is that most of the major aquifers in the world’s arid or semiarid zones are rapidly declining. Groundwater extraction is draining aquifers across the globe, including those under the North China Plain, the Arabian peninsula, northern India, central Australia, California, parts of Chile, and many others.³ Most of this groundwater eventually makes its way to the sea. So much groundwater is pumped to the surface and drained into the oceans that it is now a major contributor to sea level rise, roughly on par with melting glaciers.⁴ Aquifers around the world are vanishing. Their disappearance often goes unnoticed or unmourned. Many will never return.

The Ogallala formation is part of the High Plains aquifer system underlying much of the Great Plains, including southwest Kansas. Nearly all of its waters are taken for irrigated agriculture.⁵ They are pulled from deep layers of sand or gravel. Owing to this depth, such confined groundwater recharges very slowly or not at all.⁶ In most areas of southwest Kansas, this means groundwater is basically a nonrenewable resource. Depletion can permanently alter this kind of aquifer. Once the water is extracted, the spaces between the aquifer sands can collapse.⁷ Once the spaces collapse, such sands cannot refill entirely in the future.

Groundwater monitoring began near the Little Rock House in 1958. Since that time, test wells show the water table has dropped more than two hundred feet.⁸ Hydrologists estimate that three-fourths of the groundwater in that area is already gone. That is, the Ogallala aquifer has some of the highest rates of groundwater loss in the world.⁹ The portions of the aquifer beneath southwest Kansas have some of the highest rates of loss in the Ogallala region. And groundwater losses near the Little Rock House are among the highest in southwest Kansas. All this meant that, by 2016, the place that nurtured five generations of my family was an epicenter of global aquifer depletion.

The paradox is that the loss of southwest Kansas groundwater is coupled with extreme dependence on it. There, aquifer water is the foundation of society. Pumping groundwater has made this semiarid region into one of the world’s most productive agricultural zones. The profits of agribusiness depend on subterranean flows. But so do property values, school budgets, job opportunities, and family ties. As experts debate the imminent end of the area’s aquifer, state laws allow farmers to continue mining the groundwater that remains. Further depletion is guaranteed.

If groundwater loss is assured, what it means remains an open question. Partisan divides shape how depletion is understood. The loss of groundwater cuts in opposite political directions at once. Some progressives seize decline as proof of rural voters’ ruinous shortsightedness. Conservatives invoke it as a rallying cry to protect a threatened farming way of life and to protest regulation. For many Plains residents, groundwater loss is just another pragmatic obstacle that requires grit and hard work to overcome. Regardless of political position, all agree that aquifer loss is a threat to ideal homelands. We do not agree on who can feel at home on the Plains or in the name of what.

The depletion of the High Plains aquifer is a defining drama of our times. Within it, planetary crises of ecologies, democracy, and interpretation are condensed. It demands a response. One return visit with my father made that clear. But I did not know where to begin. Like my father, I was soon struggling to understand the fact that groundwater was running out on the Plains. What else, I wondered, may be running out with it? What would it mean if I could share the concerns of my father and other Plains residents about the declining aquifer? Had we already lost our last best chance at finding common ground? Or was this it?

On the surface, there appears to be little room for common ground. My great-grandfather RW helped to start deep well irrigation in southwest Kansas in the 1940s. Like others, he imagined it would save the region from Dust Bowl droughts and charter the prosperity to come. For two generations, it more or less worked.


Around eleven thousand irrigation wells have transformed this corner of the former Great American Desert into the so-called breadbasket of the world.¹⁰ Agriculture in southwest Kansas generates several billion dollars of revenue each year. Nearly all of the shortgrass has been plowed into fields. Industrial agribusiness has remade this space in its own image.

Grain fields, dairies, hog barns, and feedlots blanket the vast landscape. Grain elevators loom for miles. Dirt is plowed up to front doors. Commodity prices are incanted on the radio. Spray planes pass in formation. Machines never stop. Sprinklers flash all night. Furrows stretch to the horizon. Roads are ruler straight. Mechanical grids and circles dominate the space. When seen from above, the space resembles a pointillist rendition of a bygone land. The drive for order and mastery is etched into every circle and line.

The lines contain their own mythology. Agribusiness myths reduce depletion to economic common sense, as simple as the bottom line. Whether pro- or anti-depletion, abashed or defiant, people often talk about aquifer loss in terms of markets, profit, and arithmetic. The trick is that such logics do not explain depletion but justify and perpetuate it.¹¹ At the same time, they also deny the realities, contingencies, and capacities of actual people on the Plains. They reduce us all to stereotypes, make eradication seem inevitable, and let everyone off the hook.

The depths, however, may tell a different story. If the surface appears foreclosed by the lines of agribusiness, the subterranean is not. Despite early reports of an ocean of water buried under the shortgrass, the High Plains aquifer is not an underground river or lake.¹² It is the remnant of great inland seas, buried millions of years ago by movements of water and wind.¹³ Now it is a mass of water-saturated sediments ranging from beach-fine sand to gravels as big as a thumb. These sediments are honeycombed in countless pockets and chambers and bands.¹⁴

Some of the water-bearing layers are thick and connected and consistent. A well driller’s dream. Others are a nightmare. They are thin and broken and fickle. The strata can be laced with clays or stoppered by shales or stretch uninterrupted for miles or stacked all at once. Some of the aquifer’s layers breach in sand stream beds. Some are sealed deep and cold. In certain places the layers mingle and communicate. In others, the quiet waters are absent altogether.

The aquifer is patchy and uneven. It is not a single thing. It is a set of age-old relations between blockage and flow and pore. Most of its underground structures are unmapped. They are poorly understood by farmers, scientists, and policy makers alike. That means the ancient waters move in ways that can seem mysterious to all involved. This patchiness was once the domain of the Water Witch.¹⁵ These practitioners of sympathetic magic traveled the Plains locating hidden groundwater with forked wands of peach or willow wood. Water witchery drew power from the mystery of the depths.

Depletion only intensifies this mystery. So do many attempts to dispel it. They say the bottom of the aquifer is more uneven than the top. Some wells respond to other wells miles away. Others are not affected by those nearby. One farmer runs out while his neighbor pumps for years. The relationship between surface and depth varies wildly from place to place, despite no visible differences in the land.

The depths are personal as well as geologic. Aquifer waters are suffused with sediments of another kind. Traces

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  • (5/5)
    A fascinating look at water depletion in southwestern Kansas with a warning for many other parts of the world. Why Kansas? This is the homestead of the author growing up and whose family has lived there for generations. The book takes on the issue at the micro level (his Family history) and the macro level (the scientific research) on the topic.This problem (water use) as with most environmental issues is human behavior - ranchers, farmers and agrabusinesses as they all want to maximize profits. A book deserving the plaudets it has received.
  • (2/5)
    Too much navel gazing, I wanted to read about water, not the author's family history and his saintly grandmother.
  • (4/5)
    I originally found this on Hoopla--I wanted to read it (and about half of the NBA nonfiction longlist), and there it was! I don't usually listen to nonfiction because I read the notes, but this was fairly memoir-ish.And this book is excellent, if hard to read. So much is about destruction and willful ignorance. From removing and massacring different Indian groups, to the killing off of the bison within just a few years, rattlesnake and jackrabbit roundups, the plowing of the shortgrass prairie and the dustbowl, to now emptying the aquifer and intentionally wasting water.And then when I got to the end, it said to get then physical book for the notes and sources, argh! So, I did. Fortunately my library did not have a queue. And--there are maps and photos! I think this is definitely better on paper, because looking at the pictures--and seeing the maps--after the fact was not the greatest. The narrator also was not a favorite (though, frustratingly, he has done several books I am interested in!)--his tone very much sounds like he is talking down to or lecturing the reader. I got used to it though, his pronunciations were fine.