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Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains

Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains by Lucas Bessire

Lucas Bessire, Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021.

Reviewed by John MilesRewilding Earth book review editor

Running Out could not be more timely as people worldwide face what many call the existential crisis of climate change which is exacerbating the long process of depleting the Ogallala Aquifer lying beneath the United States from southern South Dakota to West Texas. Agriculture and all life of the land depends on this scarce resource, and it is in imminent danger of running out. What can and should we do to address this crisis to assure a future for our descendants? Lucas Bessire, an anthropologist who grew up in southwest Kansas where his grandfather broke the plains and started irrigating, finds in his family and personal histories cautionary tales for the world at large. “Taking responsibility for what we will leave behind,” he writes in a note to the reader, “is the book’s motive, challenge, burden, and central pivot.”

Bessire approaches the “running out” of the Ogallala Aquifer as a scholar, writer, grandson, son, and former resident of the “central pivot” of the depletion story – the Little Rock House on the Cimarron River in southwest Kansas (or what was once the Cimarron River – it is now dry there). His use of “central pivot” is surely intentional in describing his reasons for writing this book since central pivot irrigation is a big contributor to depletion of the aquifer, drawing and spreading groundwater to irrigate crops. The story of the small corner of Kansas that Bassire knows well, and depletion of its aquifer “is a defining drama of our times. Within it, planetary crises of ecologies, democracy, and interpretation are condensed. It demands a response.” Running Out is part of Bassire’s response.

Anthropologist though he may be, Bassire does not offer us a scholarly treatise about depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, and I mean this as a compliment. As his extensive notes attest, he has conducted deep research into many dimensions of aquifer depletion, the historical, sociocultural, and physical reasons for it, and the consequences, but he takes a very personal approach. He returns to where he grew up, reunites with his father who still lives and ranches there, and, relying on his father’s many contacts, interviews current players in the depletion crisis around the Little Rock House. He attends meetings of the Groundwater Management District Southwest board, set up to “conserve groundwater, stabilize agriculture, and allow western Kansas water users to determine their own future destiny.” He finds they do none of these and explains how and why this is so. He shares personal feelings evoked by what he is learning, something he could not do if he was writing primarily as a scholar.

His deepest insights come from family history, writing that he thought he had left his grandparents and the farm far behind, but “destructive inheritances are not so easy to shed.” Groundwater, he understands, “runs through my family lines like blood.” The Cimarron River near the Little Rock House was gone, and his grandfather’s wells caused it. His grandmother, Lila Fern, a rebel in her time, became obsessed with the loss through groundwater depletion of Wagonbed Springs, and spent many years researching the history of this remote place, leaving a trove of material for her grandson to mine as he dug into the depletion story. Her story is a tragic one of the plight of an intelligent, spirited woman who stood up in church, called the congregation hypocrites, yelled at them for “judging her when they were all hypocrites too.” As Bassire’s uncle tells him, “Women just didn’t do that back then. She was probably right.” But they declared she was having a nervous breakdown, institutionalized her, and she was subjected to months of electroshock treatment. She fought her way back. Bassire writes:

I can only guess whether she ever pondered how the fall of the aquifer and the rise of irrigation seemed fused with the vicissitudes of her own life. All I know is that she was undoubtedly aware that deep-well irrigation caused Wagonbed Springs to go dry. She knew that her father was responsible for drilling the wells nearest the Springs and for institutionalizing her. And she spent her post-hospital life fighting to relocate the memory of those vanished waters.

Bassire finds in his family history the causes and the consequences of depleting the groundwater that everyone depended on in so many ways.

In a chapter titled “Bones,” where he tells much of his family story, he also describes how the bison were eradicated in southwest Kansas and the Native inhabitants destroyed in a genocidal fury. And just as the buffalo hunters of the 19th century adhered to what today we call a business model that guaranteed they would destroy the source of their income, many farmers seem to be acting that way today, knowingly depleting the aquifer upon which their livelihood depends. But no worries, he quotes one official addressing a public meeting of the Southwest GMD. It is clear, says the official, that “the real long-term answer to our problem is water transport, which could easily be included in the infrastructure bill now in Congress and which would bring us all the water we need to flourish.” So, the so-called conservationists of the Groundwater Management District place their hopes on “water transport” from somewhere and consider aquifer depletion inevitable. The policies, in fact, seem to assure that outcome. Mining the aquifer until it runs out is good business, a stopgap measure until water can be imported from somewhere else. A principal reason for such damaging policy is the politics of greed played by rich absentee landlords and corporations. There is, writes Bassire, “a multibillion-dollar corporate interest to prevent regulation and to pump the water until it’s gone.”

This wasn’t always so – earlier settler behavior damaging the aquifer was the consequence of ignorance of the damage being done – but Bassire concludes that corporate greed and trickery today are core reasons the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer continues. His research also reveals that the Plains public does not seem aware of this. How can that be?

One of the places it hides is behind the fiction of a family farm that is opposed to industry and elitism. Depletion, we are told, rests in the hands of family farmers whose choices are part of an independent livelihood imbued with moral values. These values are the foundations of a community based on hard work, equal opportunities, and taking care of neighbors. The more I learned about corporate dependency on aquifer use, the more this seemed like a trick. Making local farmers appear solely responsible for depletion lets industry and distant landowners off the hook. It obfuscates the complicated ties that link depletion to the financial operations of farmers, banks, government programs, and corporate profits. And it smears any critique of overuse as an attack on community values or small farmers. But the closer I looked, the harder it was to distinguish between family and factory farms. The line was more than unclear. It was intentionally blurred.

It’s just business, claim the corporate apologists, and if the aquifer is depleted, that’s just a cost of doing business. Yet throughout the book Bassire explains how much is at stake for both the human community and the nature upon which it depends. Stories like that of clearing the land of bison and the massacre of Native people at Sand Creek, not far from the Little Rock House, or the trials of his grandmother Fern, are a ghostly presence floating over the land, floating like “Dust,” the title of the chapter that follows “Bones.”

The next chapter is “Clouds,” and in it Bassire writes of the “politization of perception” that makes it “nearly impossible to locate shared criteria of truth, evidence, and sense.” People are primed, he writes “to reject different viewpoints and stand ready to violently defend imperiled homelands, even as social isolation, economic strain, and droughts drive a mental health crisis in rural areas around the world.” Yet some penetrate the clouds, and “come to see depletion as a moral test for Plains society,” acting on this with great risk to themselves. He describes the case of one farmer and leader who sees the situation this way and fights to slow depletion, reform agricultural practice, and address the downward spiral that will bring an end to the human community and all other life dependent upon water in this semi-arid place. And, he recounts how this rare, forward-looking, and courageous individual faces retribution for his stand.

Bassire wraps up his book with many questions raised and few answered. There are many causal elements, as he has explained, but addressing them one-by-one “allows others to proliferate unchecked. Hydrogeologic models, resource management guidelines, and deregulatory frameworks may prevent anyone from grasping the real scale of the problem.” Here’s the perception problem again. “The risk is that limited explanations hide the chaos of agribusiness under the haze of order and reason.” He continues:

Such analyses cannot account for the ways the roots and branches of the issue accrete over generations into a kind of historical consciousness, much less offer effective solutions to its present operations. To complicate it further, these partial portrayals, whether critical or legitimizing, are all-too-readily politicized and then coopted into wider efforts to divide rural people from others, from themselves, and from a collective future.

His account has amply documented how this is so.

What to do? Start with reform of regional water governance, make it more democratic, not simply a system serving the already privileged. Implement “practical tools to slow depletion that already exist.” Empower citizens to vote on water management decisions. Address, as he has in this book, the “indirect injuries of depletion.” Challenge the pursuit of profit at any cost, and the ideology of growth that “exceeds its actual conditions of possibility on the Plains.” Take responsibility and bear witness to what is happening, as Bassire does in Running Out. “Unless we scrutinize the long arc of depletion, we become a medium by which it is transferred to the future. And what we are undeniably responsible for is the future world we are creating, right now, all of us together. In many places, it is a world of running out.”

From start to finish, as I read this book, the story Bassire tells about depletion, the running out of a vast source of water and its many consequences to all life in a place, seems emblematic of, as he says, a “world of running out.” Similar stories are being told of depletion of forests, fisheries, of many other “natural resources” succumbing to the depredations of corporate capitalism. Running Out is not just about depletion of one part of one aquifer, albeit a vast one upon which much of America depends in one way or another. In the following passage in his “Afterword” he explains what it is about.

Comparative accounts of depletion remain to be written. But the most extreme manifestations may share several general features. Depletion is a kind of “self-devouring growth” that exerts organizational pressure on the politics of legitimate life. It flourishes wherever people inhabit the residues of settler invasions and forgotten genocides, traces of destroyed ecosystems, surges of boom-bust despair and simmering resentment, chemical disruptions, and the specter of more heat and drought. In these zones, similar histories and technologies coincide with scarred landscapes and ideologies of unceasing productivity and profit that easily blur into militant fundamentalisms when they collapse. Extreme depletion reflects and reorganizes the causal relationships between these seemingly disparate processes. It instantiates affective states and collective dispositions that are environmental, historical, political economic, interpretive, aesthetic, embodies and broadly comparable all at once.

Here he summarizes the story he has told in objective language rather than in the subjective approach of most of the book. Bassire is a fine writer and engagingly leads the reader through accounts of his attendance at mind-numbing meetings of water bureaucrats, interviews with some of these bureaucrats, farmers, and family members, and forays he makes with his father across the landscape. An unusual quality of this book is the way Bassire weaves his way through personal accounts, memories, and reflections, and information gathered from many sources describing the dire situation of the Ogallala Aquifer.

I am not a farmer and don’t live above the Ogallala Aquifer, but the headwaters of the Cimarron River rise not far east of where I live. When Running Out came my way I wondered how it would be relevant to my concerns which embrace “depletion” of the natural world generally. The book is not primarily about impacts of depletion on that natural world – such impacts are mentioned, almost assumed. Bassire is primarily focused on effects on the human community and analysis of how the situation around the Little Rock House came to be. I was drawn in because, as noted, I immediately saw this as more than about depletion of one aquifer, albeit a vast and important one. In a poignant anecdote he describes a walk he took one hot late summer day down the Cimarron. He heard, far above, the faint trilling of sandhill cranes, among the oldest of birds that “follow ancient migration routes.” Not many migrate over the area, “But those that do seem to remember prior versions of the land.” His grandmother Fern told him there was once a playa lake near the Little Rock House, long ago plowed under, but still “the cranes always circle that spot before they continue.” As he watched, they “made a wide loop and continued on.” He heard the noise of a spray plane cutting against the cranes. This is one striking example of how Bassire the writer portrays the loss and change at the center of the story. Running Out is a book for our times – it should have an impact on policy, and become a classic, as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring did in the 1960s, similarly a book for its time.

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