Hiding in Plain Sight: Talking Aquifer Depletion with Lucas Bessire

“The everyday ways that people challenge environmental destruction can be quite powerful.”

The Ogallala aquifer, one of the earth’s largest, extends from South Dakota to Texas and, today, supports one-sixth of the world’s grain production, even as it is quickly being drained to the point of collapse. Lucas Bessire’s Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains, which was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award, is a story about the politics and livelihoods that have sustained this extraction. It is also, necessarily, a personal story. The author’s family has lived in Kansas for generations, and their livelihoods depended upon the aquifer. Running Out is a hybrid memoir-analysis that grapples with what, if anything, might redirect the path carved by groundwater depletion while noticing and honoring the lives built around and against it.

Julie Livingston (JL): Running Out was one of my most favorite books of the past year—that is, if you can love something that’s about the destruction of the planet.

You approached the Ogallala aquifer, one of the planet’s largest subterranean systems, as a relationship rather than as an object. The aquifer doesn’t exist separately from the humans, from the plants, animals, institutions, and political systems that draw from it. The book refuses to allow the aquifer to remain abstract, despite its mysteries, its hidden depths, its ancient history and its vast scale. Instead, readers experience a paradox in which escalating dependency on the aquifer has become its very undoing.

There is this addiction to economic growth going on here, so that even though everyone is aware of how fast and furious the water table is sinking, they’re locked in a suicidal spiral to the bottom of the water supply. Running Out helps us understand how and why that’s happening in holistic terms. I learned so much from this book and in no small part because you found a narrative form to make that holism palpable and again concrete. I think abstraction is our enemy here. A crucial part of that multifaceted approach comes from the fact that, as a writer, you have skin in the game. You and your family live with the aquifer and the contradictions imposed upon it.


Lucas Bessire (LB): Thank you! Yes, the lived contradiction of aquifer decline is the main subject of the book. It recounts a journey that began in 2016. Like many people then, I was trying to find my bearings within this country’s hard Right turn. For me, that meant attempting to reconnect with my father and the Great Plains in southwest Kansas, where I grew up. Looking back, I suppose I felt a sort of existential urgency, an unarticulated sense that vital possibilities were running out all around, a drive to reckon with a mystery that I was not quite equipped to understand. Was there any common ground left?

During my first return to the farm, my father voiced his concerns about aquifer depletion. Those concerns seemed like something we might be able to share. It turned out that the place where five generations of my family had lived as farmers and ranchers had one of the highest rates of groundwater loss in the world. As time passed, I slowly began to realize how the epistemic and emotional fault lines of aquifer depletion mirrored my own. It was impossible to separate the extirpation of groundwater from the web of relationships that bound me to that place and to other generations, past and future. The more I learned, the more curious and unsettled I became.


JL: I was intrigued by the concept of depletion that you use throughout the book to draw together scales normally kept separate, like the personal and global. What does depletion mean for you and why does it hold such a prominent place in Running Out?


LB: Our language for aquifer loss is often part of the problem. Early on, I was struck by how the limited explanations of it seemed to drive groundwater consumption. So, I was searching for a term that could approximate how aquifer decline gains momentum from the layered contradictions and breaks through which it is perceived. The point is that unsustainable groundwater use is never just an environmental or economic problem. It is also a matter of emotion, of historical consciousness, of aphasia, of belonging. I wanted to find a more open-ended lexicon—and one that would not preclude attention to the generative aspects of destruction or the possibility of recharge.


JL: I’d like to ask about the genre, or literary form, of Running Out. It moves across scale and does implicit analytic work. It also makes the problem incredibly intimate. How did you decide to write in that register?


LB: The challenge was how to craft a narrative in which the structure mimics the object and constitutes the analysis. The book is composed, like an aquifer, of various sediments, layers, and scales. Sometimes the pieces connect, sometimes they do not. The slippage between them is the point. Of course, I could not stand outside of that slippage, given that one of the book’s main arguments is that aquifer depletion is fundamentally about intimate habits, perceptions, and ties. Writing close to those, in turn, allowed me to reach toward a voice that hopefully felt somehow real or partly recognizable to people on the Plains.


How Will We Farm?

By Eva-Lynn Jagoe

JL: I really love how you narrate the story with such openness and vulnerability. There is that scene at a board meeting of the groundwater management district to discuss how to manage depletion that you and your father attend. It becomes clear that the system is already rigged toward immediate profit for some powerful interests rather than pragmatically or fairly serving the region. Your father says so much by putting his hat on and standing up and quietly leaving a meeting about water rights—you know he smells bullshit. He’s like, all right, no need to say it. You opened up a space where the reader can perceive different forms of assessment and evaluation and communication that go beyond abstractions of legal or economic accounting.


LB: The everyday ways that people challenge environmental destruction can be quite powerful. They may also remind readers about the incredible diversity of people and perspectives within rural communities. Many folks in the Great Plains do not agree with corporate extraction or partisan essentialisms and would very much like to save some of the aquifer waters for future generations. This poses a bigger question. How might an environmental issue like aquifer decline help bring people together or mobilize new alliances across social divides?


JL: It is clear in the book that you and your father—and many others—can see behind the doctrine of economic growth and the system of forced irrigation, as you call it. You show how democratic governance of the aquifer is distorted by agribusiness doublespeak or packing the water board with extraction supporters. You show this in the scene of a meeting where you survey the room and find there aren’t many people there other than the people who are paid to be there. What might push things in another direction, toward surrendering this water as a true commons, in which access and responsibility are managed collectively, rather than as private property?


LB: Maybe dismantling some myths about depletion is a way to start. The first myth is that farmers are a monolithic group with a single perspective on decline. That is not true. Most farmers I met would prefer to save groundwater but often feel compelled to keep pumping because of the ways that farm finance works to incentivize unsustainable irrigation.

A second myth is that family farmers are driving decline, when a large percentage of agricultural lands is actually owned by absentee or corporate investors.

A third myth is that aquifer depletion is economically profitable for farmers. In fact, there are many years in which local farmers lose money by pumping out aquifer waters, while the real profits are exported to industrial elites far away.

Finally, it is also a myth that groundwater management decisions reflect local opinions or are a kind of political self-determination. In Kansas, it turns out that participation in this supposedly democratic process is restricted only to those who own substantial amounts of land or water rights. The vast majority of Plains residents cannot vote on the groundwater policies that will determine their futures.

Moving beyond these and other myths about aquifer use, as you suggest, might help open room to more intentionally cultivate the kinds of collective sensibilities and structures we need to transform our aquifer into some kind of actionable commons.


JL: I want to explore what—for want of a better word—I will call the “uncanny.” Your book follows lingering traces, leading to hidden histories and hidden connections. And what you ultimately uncover is often quite violent. You write about your grandmother Fern’s electroshock treatment, which was upsetting to read in many ways. When you were a kid, you found Native American flints scattered across the landscape, left by those killed or exiled. You write about a wandering antelope that had lost its way but looked like a figure from the past. Yet that violence is always being erased and papered over with myths. At another point, you describe the marker of the Sand Creek Massacre of Native peoples moving. In each instance, these images point to the continual erasure, to getting rid of the world that came before and its inevitable resurgence.

Does the uncanny help us to perceive a system that’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time?


LB: That is a great question. Running Out does invoke something like the uncanny, the return of the repressed across these multiple and contradictory scales. They include the haunting of collective memories by agrochemicals, the strange eruptive power of material remains, the surreal nonsense built into agribusiness common sense, and the perceptual techniques required to inhabit the insane rationalities of the present. I would like to think more about how the logics of eradication on the Plains—those of bison eradication, genocide, the Dust Bowl, and now aquifer depletion—seem to be passed down and reproduced through these gaps in knowledge.


This Land Is My Land

By Rebecca Elliott

JL: Running Out opens a layer behind the layer behind the layer. The uncanny seems to tell you where to go. There’s something super valuable about a scholar trusting that sense, but not surrendering to it. It’s worth introducing it somehow into our methodological awareness.


LB: One of the things that I find inspirational about your work in Botswana is how you open room for people to trust their instinct and to understand that our planetary conundrums often cannot be addressed within their given terms. We have to approach them sideways, to linger at the periphery, to examine what is germinating beneath the surface of things that otherwise seem unrelated.


JL: This doesn’t have to be like this lone singular pursuit, as your book shows. You have so many people in the mix. You have your grandmother as a researcher before you. You have your father, who is your partner in dialogue. You have various people whom you talk to and who know so much. All of these different vantage points each add to that uncanny effect. It also suggests that there is something collaborative or collective that is necessary in order to approach problems that are this vast and this tentacular. The hiding-in-plain-sight kind of problem.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

Featured image provided by Lucas Bessire