Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Lucas Bessire is a filmmaker and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. His 2021 book, Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains, is a story about his return home to western Kansas, and an attempt to put words to immeasurable systems – from the supply chains of corporate agriculture, to the map of underground tributaries that make up the Ogallala Aquifer. It’s also a National Book Award Finalist, and one of my favorite books I read last year. Come for the ag policy, stay for the father-son relationship.
Enjoy our conversation about groundwater’s life cycle, the vocabulary of extreme depletion, and the utility of collective amnesia, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: In grade school, I learned to think about water as a “renewable resource,” or a substance that couldn’t just disappear. Your book gave a really concrete depiction of the perils of overuse – can you describe the actual spatial process of aquifer depletion? This might be a silly question, but where does the water used in irrigation farming actually go? What does depletion look like on the ground in the Plains?
Lucas Bessire: There is not one story of aquifer depletion – there are many. One reason for that is because aquifer systems are so variable. They are complex sets of relationships. They take different forms in different places and at different times. In much of southwest Kansas – the place that grounds my writing on this – the aquifer waters are deep and old. They are “fossil waters” that recharge very slowly or not at all. There, nearly all of the water that is pumped to the surface is consumed by crops or it evaporates or it moves away through drainage channels. I was surprised to learn that much of the groundwater that we pump eventually makes its way to the oceans. In fact, aquifer depletion is a major contributor to rising sea levels. On the Plains, most of that water will not return. Such unsustainable relationships to aquifers, in turn, are hard to separate from our relationships to each other and to future generations.
DY: To me, the most striking sections of the book were your descriptions of meetings of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District, in which seemingly every speech was sponsored by some type of agribusiness, and spoken in corporate tongues. It made me think a lot about how often do-gooders are missing the technical vocabulary to penetrate spaces like that, and how that is probably by design. This phenomenon seems related to the words of one local you quote in the book, who said “It’s easy to sit back and criticize this or that from a distance, but what would you do? Probably screw it up even worse.” So, is anybody doing it right? Is anybody combining local, accumulated knowledge with enough economic separation from the incentives of agribusiness to make real progress toward conservation?
LB: Yes! The good news about aquifer loss is that there are so many terrific, courageous, smart people across the Plains and beyond who are committed to more sustainable ways ahead. They often discover that our vocabulary for extreme depletion is part of the issue. Reducing the causes of depletion to the bottom line or technical terms may prevent us from understanding what is actually going on. It makes something that is nonsensical appear to make sense. It lets too many people off the hook. And it can convince us that depletion is inevitable or that there is nothing to be done about it.
None of that is true.
Aquifer destruction, in many cases, is a self-harming spiral that gains momentum through a set of wider structures and beliefs that benefit an elite few at the expense of multitudes. As many scholars have written, this kind of depletion is never just an economic or environmental issue. It is never just a regional problem for which local people alone are to blame. Most of us are somehow complicit in it, in different ways. A vast array of institutions and people across the United States profit from the depletion of our rural Plains regions, including big businesses that drain the aquifer and export most profits elsewhere. In addition to this kind of extractive economy, the drivers of aquifer loss include emotion, historical consciousness, classism and racism, belief and belonging. Once you see the problem in its holistic terms, you can start to imagine new solutions. And that is what is happening right now across the Plains.
Many folks are working hard to revise the major structures that sustain aquifer destruction. This is especially true for Kansas, where coalitions of farmers, experts, scholars, agency officials at the Kansas Water Office and some Groundwater Management Districts, and policymakers are working together to make real progress on the issue despite strong pushback from corporate agribusiness lobbies. Through these efforts, they are showing us that there is still time to find common ground, to live up to our best Plains values and to save some of our aquifer waters for future generations of Plains people.
DY: In the book you tell some unbelievable stories of the paradoxical incentive structures of irrigation farming – about doomed crops worth more to farmers than bounty, and farcical narratives of linear “economic growth.” But, though the specific instances depicted in the book are spectacular, I’m not sure many Americans would be surprised by them. Did you learn anything while writing this book that gives you hope for overcoming the collective action problems generated by corporate agriculture? What can we do if laying the perversity bare isn’t enough?
LB: I don’t know if hope is the right word – probably because I can’t tell you what it really means – but I learned that there are still some horizons of possibility out there and some clear pathways that point in those directions. Most of them begin by breaking the different myths that accumulate around environmental issues on the Plains. They mean challenging the cheap partisan slogans that reduce us to our crudest essences of difference or try to convince us that we do not have much in common or that there is no use trying to improve our little parcels or that it is already too late to make much of a difference. We can still rebuild common ground. To do so, we can find inspiration in the past as well as the future. There is a long history of Plains people coming together in the face of hardships, having the courage to stand up for what is right and helping out less fortunate neighbors. There is no doubt about it. We are at a crossroads. Hardship lies in either direction. But, with a lot of hard work and grit and better policies, we can still create the conditions for more sustainable, healthy and prosperous rural livelihoods.
DY: Amnesia is a strong theme throughout the book – your grandmother forgetting the dust bowl, your father forgetting the hard parts of his childhood, your region forgetting the Native peoples its white settlers displaced. What purpose does that kind of memory loss serve for a place in decline? What is gained by trying to remember?
LB: The more I learn about extreme aquifer depletion, the more I am struck by the particular ways it does not make sense. Forgetting is one of several techniques of not knowing that are required to rationalize it. Knowing what not to know was a core part of my experience growing up on the Plains, too. This non-knowledge is a sort of connective tissue that binds the past to the present and the future. It allows certain patterns to repeat. The question is how to embrace the mirage-like quality of such environmental crises in order to break myths and to more viscerally convey the illusory realities by which they are passed down over generations. I hope my work is one small step in that direction.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.