If you think the water crisis in the western states can’t get any worse, wait until the aquifers are drained. How long have we been hearing about the ancient waters of the Ogallala Aquifer being consumed by deep-well irrigation pumping at a non-renewable pace? It seems like forever.
Reliable, well-documented information on depletion rates and causes has been available for decades. In 2014, a National Geographic writer quoted a Kansas State University study projecting that “if farmers in Kansas keep irrigating at (2014) rates, 69 percent of the Ogallala Aquifer will be gone in 50 years.” More recent studies have increased the rate of loss.
Unfortunately, dramatic groundwater decline across the mid-west and a twenty-one year drought decimating the west, conflated with a global climate change crisis, has caused far too many of us to grow callused to this “news.”
A fresh voice has joined the effort to wake-up and motivate a jaded populace. Lucas Bessire, a fifth-generation native of semi-arid south-west Kansas, is currently an anthropology professor at the University of Oklahoma. In “Running Out, in Search of Water on the High Plains,” Bessire delivers an ethnographic study of life dependent upon the aquifer considered “discovered” by white settlers in the 1890s. His writing style is deeply personal and touching as he combines harrowing facts with acute observations of the land, waters, grasses, wildlife and sky of his life along the Cimarron before he left for college, ending up absorbed in an academic career that leads him, full circle, home again.
His memoir voice calls to mind the writings of other established natural science philosopher/environmentalists like John Muir, Edward Hoagland, Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry and the great Rachel Carson. Bessire’s poignant narrative explores how our human drive for profit, combined with an equal drive to deny/avoid consequences, fuels our societal inability to conceptualize and enact effective solutions.
“Running Out” opens with Bessire rattling down a washboard gravel road leading to a little rock house originally built as part of his great-grandfather’s cattle camp and currently housing Bessire’s aging father — described as “being made for this gusty land.” Intimate family memories provide a rich framework for the entire text.
“Bones” is a history chapter of a thousand years of transient usage prior to white settlers claiming the area. Upon the arrival of Germans, Swedes and various other European groups, buffalo herds were annihilated, along with the Native Americans reliant upon them; initial deep water wells drained the springs, rivers, streams, and creeks where local fauna and flora had flourished for centuries. Utter tragedy is the hallmark of this long chapter.
The next chapter, “Dust,” details the calamitous land management of the dust bowl era. Bessire reveals how from the 1930s through the ‘60s, ‘70s and beyond, governmental land management agencies gave water governance to a limited self-interest group of landowners who organized and defended unfettered pumping. Urban dwellers, including the thousands of migrant workers and immigrants still providing necessary labor in huge feedlots and national meat processing plants that dominate employment in the area, had no voice. These workers are also the people who suffer the most from the overwhelming use of toxic chemicals that go hand-in-hand with extensive irrigation.
A thorough description of the Sand Creek Massacre of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapahoe families, camping under a treaty flag of the United States government ends this chapter.
Readers unfamiliar with how the U.S. cavalry ferociously slaughtered a few hundred women, children, and men too old to hunt, will, again, find these pages appalling. But, what Bessire points out about this massacre, that may be even worse than the act itself, is how many similar acts of unjustified aggression and retribution by the governing forces of frontier areas have continued to go unvoiced and unaddressed today.
At this point in “Running Out,” Bessire realizes that the two year hunt for water which he originally set out to document has now become a hunt for the causes of rampant violence and utter brutality at the core of our being. How do we face and control our own species-wide destructiveness?
A last short chapter, “Clouds” doesn’t provide solutions. Bessire describes some small changes that could be read as encouraging signs, like townspeople finally being allowed to sit and vote on the county water boards. But, in a conversation about accepting environmental obligations and embracing mutuality, there are governing bodies who count on building a pipeline from the Missouri river to transport water to replenish the aquifer — but only after unrestricted pumping has completely exhausted the natural resource. The afterword focuses on corporate influences on regional agriculture and water management, which, as readers of this type of literature will suspect, are almost always negative.
So, why read this intensely grim account of Bessire and his people embedded in yet another monumental environmental disaster? Because we are in it with him, complicit up to our eyeballs, and if we want the children of our families and friends to have a sustainable future, a future replete with the luxury of water usage like we have casually enjoyed, we have to continue to push against the denial of the problem, to challenge the hopelessness around creating effective solutions, and to confront the immediacy of the timeline. “Running Out” supports this change of heart; I found this richly detailed study to be an amazing work of art — fierce, but amazing.
Carolyn J. Kelly is a technical and business writer and editor in Manhattan.