Lucas Bessire: "Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains"
In this episode, we spoke with Dr. Lucas Bessire, an Associate Professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. Before joining the faculty at Oklahoma, Bessire earned a doctorate in anthropology from New York University. His family has been in Kansas for five generations, and his recent work turns toward this home connection with the Great Plains with his new book: "Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains," published by Princeton University Press.
Special thanks to Margaret Huettl for providing a video land acknowledgement for this episode. To listen to the podcast version, visit: https://anchor.fm/gp-lectures
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[00:00:00.000]Welcome to Great Plains: Anywhere,
[00:00:01.990]a Paul A. Olson lecture
[00:00:03.770]from the Center for Great Plains Studies
[00:00:05.420]at the University of Nebraska.
[00:00:08.220]In this episode, we spoke with Dr. Lucas Bessire,
[00:00:11.170]an associate professor of anthropology
[00:00:13.240]at the University of Oklahoma.
[00:00:15.480]Before joining the faculty at Oklahoma,
[00:00:18.040]Bessire earned a doctorate in anthropology
[00:00:20.270]from New York University.
[00:00:22.140]His family has been in Kansas for five generations
[00:00:25.100]and his recent work turns toward this home connection
[00:00:28.350]with the Great Plains in his new book,
[00:00:30.767]"Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains,"
[00:00:33.880]published by Princeton University Press.
[00:00:36.960]On behalf of the Center for Great Plains Studies,
[00:00:39.110]I would like to begin by acknowledging
[00:00:41.260]that the University of Nebraska is a land-grant institution
[00:00:44.970]with campuses and programs on the past, present,
[00:00:47.770]and future homelands of the Pawnee, Ponca,
[00:00:49.910]Otoe-Missouria, Omaha, Lakota, Dakota,
[00:00:54.500]Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kaw peoples,
[00:00:57.510]as well as the relocated Ho-Chunk Iowa
[00:01:00.230]and Sac and Fox peoples.
[00:01:02.190]Please take a moment to consider the legacies
[00:01:04.410]of more than 150 years of displacement, violence,
[00:01:08.800]settlement, and survival that bring us here today.
[00:01:12.240]This acknowledgement and the centering
[00:01:14.040]of indigenous peoples is a start
[00:01:16.260]as we move forward together for the next 150 years.
[00:01:20.600]Hi, I'm Katie Nieland.
[00:01:21.433]I'm the associate director
[00:01:22.660]of the Center for Great Plains Studies.
[00:01:24.660]I'm Dylan Wall.
[00:01:25.610]I'm education and outreach associate,
[00:01:28.030]the Center for Great Plains Studies.
[00:01:30.420]Hello, Lucas Bessire.
[00:01:31.310]I'm associate professor of anthropology
[00:01:32.970]at the University of Oklahoma.
[00:01:34.950]Thank you so much for joining us today.
[00:01:36.320]We really appreciate it.
[00:01:37.890]Thank you so much for having me.
[00:01:39.640]Thank you to the Center for Great Plains Studies
[00:01:42.410]for all the wonderful work that you're doing,
[00:01:44.750]and thank you for the audience,
[00:01:46.660]for the opportunity to introduce my new book.
[00:01:49.670]The book offers a personal account
[00:01:51.720]of a slow-motion environmental crisis on the Plains,
[00:01:55.320]the imminent depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer.
[00:01:58.980]As many of you know, the Ogallala Aquifer is part
[00:02:01.910]of the larger High Plains aquifer system
[00:02:04.340]that underlies part of eight Great Plains states
[00:02:07.160]from South Dakota to Texas.
[00:02:09.260]It's one of the planet's largest aquifer systems.
[00:02:12.360]And in these pictures,
[00:02:13.650]you can see on the left a general map
[00:02:16.710]of the region of the aquifer,
[00:02:18.400]and on the right, a zoom-in part of the portion
[00:02:21.840]of the aquifer that my book really focuses on,
[00:02:24.150]which is in Southwest Kansas,
[00:02:25.990]right along the borders of Colorado and Oklahoma.
[00:02:30.550]Since the 1940s, groundwater taken
[00:02:32.930]from the Ogallala has transformed the Great Plains
[00:02:35.540]into a major food-producing region.
[00:02:38.250]Ogallala water supports around 1/6
[00:02:40.520]of the world's annual production of grain
[00:02:42.850]and accounts for about $35 billion worth
[00:02:45.960]of agricultural products each year.
[00:02:48.940]Nearly all of the water taken
[00:02:50.630]from the Ogallala is pumped for crop irrigation.
[00:02:55.250]In many ways, Plains societies today are organized
[00:02:59.260]around the consumption of aquifer waters.
[00:03:02.420]Agribusiness profits depend on groundwater,
[00:03:05.450]but so do tax bases, land values,
[00:03:08.570]social services, and family ties to the land.
[00:03:13.470]The paradox is that our dependence on the aquifer has turned
[00:03:16.640]into its demise.
[00:03:18.950]Groundwater is unable to keep up
[00:03:20.920]with the demands placed upon it by farmers,
[00:03:23.470]as most areas of the Ogallala recharge far more slowly
[00:03:26.760]than the water is pumped out.
[00:03:29.410]Overuse has taxed the Ogallala beyond repair.
[00:03:33.430]This crisis is painfully obvious in Southwest Kansas,
[00:03:36.750]where the water table has dropped
[00:03:38.530]and many farmers have already run out of water.
[00:03:42.380]This is also where I grew up.
[00:03:44.980]My family, here's a picture of one
[00:03:47.310]of my family members on a combine back in the day,
[00:03:50.270]farmed and ranched in Southwest Kansas for generations.
[00:03:53.740]My great grandfather helped start
[00:03:55.490]deep well irrigation there.
[00:03:57.890]Like most farmers, my ancestors worked hard.
[00:04:02.090]Groundwater helped them make ends meet,
[00:04:04.680]but now Southwest Kansas has one
[00:04:06.710]of the highest rates of aquifer loss in the world.
[00:04:10.560]The future of Plains societies is at stake,
[00:04:14.240]but extreme aquifer depletion
[00:04:15.750]has implications far beyond the region.
[00:04:18.890]It condenses the major crises of our times,
[00:04:22.280]of natural resources, of democracies,
[00:04:25.300]of interpretation, into a single drama.
[00:04:29.460]Aquifer depletion is a microcosm
[00:04:31.980]in which the larger conundrums
[00:04:33.580]of contemporary human existence come
[00:04:35.930]into particularly sharp focus.
[00:04:40.230]One of the biggest challenges facing scholars now is
[00:04:42.823]that the terms we use
[00:04:44.420]to analyze present crises are insufficient
[00:04:47.780]or somehow already co-opted into the terms
[00:04:50.180]of the problems they ostensibly describe.
[00:04:53.310]Failures of interpretation, then,
[00:04:55.680]very quickly can turn into the failures of solutions.
[00:04:59.630]So how can we move beyond this?
[00:05:02.670]We have a lot of scientific
[00:05:04.120]and technical language for aquifer depletion,
[00:05:07.380]but we do not have many accounts
[00:05:09.470]of the key role that emotional ties
[00:05:11.910]and intimate relationships play
[00:05:14.250]in dramas of irreversible resource loss.
[00:05:17.730]In my case, that's where aquifer depletion begins and ends.
[00:05:22.730]Now, I never planned to write on aquifer depletion
[00:05:26.050]or my family history.
[00:05:28.210]I'm an anthropologist and I spent years
[00:05:30.290]in the Gran Chaco of Paraguay studying
[00:05:32.680]how the destruction of a forest wilderness altered the lives
[00:05:35.970]of a recently contacted native group.
[00:05:39.220]In 2016, I made a trip back to the farm
[00:05:42.020]to reconnect with my father.
[00:05:44.650]He told me about an incredible scale of aquifer loss,
[00:05:47.767]and the Plains suddenly began to reappear
[00:05:50.280]to me as a mirror image of the tropics.
[00:05:54.350]That led me to think more about my complicity
[00:05:56.660]with destruction and also raised questions
[00:06:00.000]about where we could find common ground
[00:06:02.430]at a moment of deep division and distrust.
[00:06:06.240]My father and I began traveling across Southwest Kansas.
[00:06:09.930]We learned many lessons about the deeper layers
[00:06:12.220]and the myths through
[00:06:13.560]which aquifer depletion gains meaning and force.
[00:06:17.750]Of the many things we learned,
[00:06:19.360]one of the first was that the aquifer itself
[00:06:21.750]is not a single thing.
[00:06:23.990]It's complexity defies the usual ways it's understood
[00:06:29.320]Maybe like many of you,
[00:06:30.950]I grew up somehow imagining the aquifer
[00:06:33.290]as an underground lake or an ocean,
[00:06:35.980]but that's not true.
[00:06:37.530]It's a mass of water-bearing sediments
[00:06:40.310]that are connected and disconnected
[00:06:42.140]in infinite and countless ways.
[00:06:46.080]Some of these layers are tied together
[00:06:48.240]and they stretch for miles.
[00:06:49.880]Some of them aren't; they're very local and idiosyncratic.
[00:06:53.750]That means that the aquifer behaves
[00:06:55.500]in ways that are often perplexing
[00:06:58.180]or difficult to understand.
[00:07:00.400]It also means that the story of depletion
[00:07:02.910]is a non-linear story.
[00:07:06.060]We also discovered that depletion is often misunderstood
[00:07:09.920]as just a consequence of economic common sense
[00:07:13.240]or the bottom line.
[00:07:15.230]But the economics of depletion, it turns out,
[00:07:17.860]do not actually make sense.
[00:07:20.780]Often, farmers lose money growing irrigated crops
[00:07:23.830]in Western Kansas.
[00:07:25.950]The gains often don't cover the costs of production,
[00:07:30.580]but farmers are compelled to keep going
[00:07:32.670]by the structure of farm finance,
[00:07:34.950]including subsidies, investment policies,
[00:07:38.100]risk management criteria, crop insurance,
[00:07:40.950]and a variety of debts.
[00:07:43.420]At the same time, the real profits
[00:07:45.650]from industrial agribusiness move out of local communities
[00:07:49.160]and are concentrated elsewhere.
[00:07:51.800]This all led me to begin to understand
[00:07:54.150]that we dramatically undervalue aquifer water.
[00:07:59.340]This economic irrationality is deeply tied up
[00:08:02.880]with the logics of prior eradications
[00:08:05.460]that are so well-known on the Plains
[00:08:07.520]from genocide and ethnic cleansing
[00:08:09.830]to bison extermination and the Dust Bowl.
[00:08:13.570]It also means that this economic irrationality is tied up
[00:08:17.270]with the fault lines of memory,
[00:08:19.290]the sentiments of eradication,
[00:08:21.530]and the stark social hierarchies
[00:08:24.010]that are evident within Plains communities now.
[00:08:27.700]That is, there is a discrepancy
[00:08:30.010]between the ways depletion is understood
[00:08:32.270]and the ways it actually operates.
[00:08:35.190]That discrepancy, in turn,
[00:08:36.620]mirrors the gaps between Plains ideals and reality.
[00:08:42.770]These gaps of knowing and of acting are often exploited
[00:08:46.920]by corporate investors and big money interests
[00:08:50.170]in ways that turn groundwater management
[00:08:52.340]against conservation and that divide Plains communities.
[00:08:57.000]So what does all this mean?
[00:08:59.960]It means that aquifer loss is much bigger
[00:09:01.970]than partisan politics and divides.
[00:09:04.770]It's a generational test of Plains values.
[00:09:08.520]It also means that aquifer depletion
[00:09:10.330]across the Ogallala is not just a local or a regional issue.
[00:09:15.180]It's a planetary issue.
[00:09:17.120]It's one that involves a huge number
[00:09:18.780]of people across the United States and across the world.
[00:09:23.010]We also know that these kinds of dramas
[00:09:25.680]of aquifer depletion will only increase
[00:09:28.570]as the world grows hotter and dryer.
[00:09:32.500]What gives me hope is that many farmers
[00:09:34.960]and local residents are actually
[00:09:36.810]in favor of better stewardship.
[00:09:39.430]They want to save the aquifer waters for the future.
[00:09:43.410]But how can we give them that chance?
[00:09:46.760]As many scholars have pointed out,
[00:09:48.780]we need more effective policy.
[00:09:51.260]We also need more educated public actions
[00:09:54.050]and we need more personal accountability
[00:09:56.550]to make this happen.
[00:09:58.870]That entails different ways of understanding value
[00:10:01.820]and profit on the Plains.
[00:10:04.000]It also requires a shifting political horizon
[00:10:07.680]away from the politics of blame
[00:10:09.700]and towards a politics of responsibility
[00:10:12.130]for future generations.
[00:10:15.040]That all requires more attention to the social
[00:10:18.060]and emotional aspects of depletion,
[00:10:20.780]which is the central pivot of the book
[00:10:22.880]that I just tried to write.
[00:10:25.000]So I'd like to close with a short passage from the book,
[00:10:28.220]and then we can continue the discussion as needed.
[00:10:35.110]When I look over the Plains,
[00:10:37.090]I sometimes feel as if I can glimpse what was once there
[00:10:40.660]and now is absent.
[00:10:42.750]Scenes of a vanished world and ghostly harvests
[00:10:46.630]and unrealized potentials float like mirages.
[00:10:51.070]They leave me dizzy and nauseous.
[00:10:54.570]Writing this account allowed me
[00:10:56.170]to reach out to my ancestors, to evacuate their choices,
[00:11:00.820]to locate myself within the remnants of their lives.
[00:11:05.000]So will the children of the future stand
[00:11:06.770]in judgment on me and on you?
[00:11:10.040]I take it for granted that they will judge us harshly.
[00:11:13.690]They will seek to account for what was taken
[00:11:15.690]from them and what was left behind.
[00:11:19.160]But so often the same topics that get closed off
[00:11:22.450]from examination today are closed off from memory tomorrow.
[00:11:27.560]If that cycle is not interrupted,
[00:11:29.980]our reckoning with depletion
[00:11:31.340]and responsibility will remain incomplete.
[00:11:35.210]I offer this flawed testament in the hopes
[00:11:37.760]that future generations will have a fuller portrait
[00:11:40.700]of how one fragment of their world came to be.
[00:11:44.660]I hope it may also inspire some on the Plains
[00:11:47.030]to take action now.
[00:11:49.170]Much can still be done.
[00:11:51.550]We stand at a crossroads:
[00:11:54.080]in one direction, lies the final eradication
[00:11:56.260]of the aquifer waters,
[00:11:58.230]but in the other is a chance to share some
[00:12:00.470]of this ancient life force with the future.
[00:12:03.640]We know that practical alternatives to depletion abound.
[00:12:07.690]They lie on collective ground.
[00:12:10.850]The choice is ours to make.
[00:12:13.050]Time to do so is running out.
[00:12:15.640]If we fail to act, an emptied aquifer will change
[00:12:18.590]our lives for us.
[00:12:20.630]Whatever we decide, it will reverberate far
[00:12:23.280]beyond this time and place.
[00:12:25.900]Thank you very much for sharing a little bit
[00:12:27.520]about your book with us.
[00:12:28.610]We really appreciate it.
[00:12:29.870]I do have a couple of questions if you'd like
[00:12:31.930]to hang out for a minute or two.
[00:12:35.800]Well, you know, writing a book about the place
[00:12:39.700]where you are from must be a very personal journey.
[00:12:43.720]Can you talk a little bit more
[00:12:45.100]about what that was like for you as a writer?
[00:12:49.740]Yes. Thank you for that question, Katie.
[00:12:51.870]It is a personal journey
[00:12:53.700]and I think that one of the biggest lessons
[00:12:56.970]from that was really a confrontation
[00:13:02.290]with the ways in which my own personal story
[00:13:05.460]and the ways I learned to grow up,
[00:13:07.890]the ways I learned to understand the past
[00:13:10.500]and the present were entangles
[00:13:13.420]with the dilemmas of aquifer depletion.
[00:13:16.560]I wasn't really expecting that.
[00:13:19.080]And I was struck, through my journeys with my father,
[00:13:24.730]how peculiar the resonances were
[00:13:28.610]between the affective structures
[00:13:31.050]of this kind of resource loss
[00:13:33.250]and my own difficult relationships with my family.
[00:13:37.350]And what that turned into was a kind
[00:13:41.630]of analysis that unfolded
[00:13:45.670]alongside a successful attempt
[00:13:48.580]to find a tentative reconciliation with my family,
[00:13:52.720]with the places I'm from.
[00:13:54.290]And I took that as a conceptual prompt
[00:13:57.430]and I took that as a literary prompt,
[00:13:59.980]as something to integrate into the structure
[00:14:02.240]of the book and not to just erase or put in a footnote.
[00:14:07.086]And I think that that's really what the book does
[00:14:11.630]You know, whether that's useful
[00:14:12.870]or not for people is another question,
[00:14:14.980]but that's what I tried to do.
[00:14:18.220]And speaking from the Center for Great Plains Studies
[00:14:21.330]where we are very interdisciplinary,
[00:14:24.170]it also seems like your book is sort of looking
[00:14:27.100]at the aquifer from all these different kinds of places.
[00:14:31.910]So, you know, you're talking in the beginning about,
[00:14:35.110]you know, where it is, the science and things like that,
[00:14:37.480]but you're really like going into the human part
[00:14:41.150]of the aquifer and how we relate to it.
[00:14:44.510]I think that is a really interesting perspective
[00:14:47.330]to bring to something.
[00:14:48.800]And maybe people think, "Oh, that's just scientific
[00:14:51.580]or that's just land management type
[00:14:56.354]of an area,"
[00:14:57.187]but you're looking at it from this different angle,
[00:14:59.150]which I think is really cool.
[00:15:01.110]Thank you so much.
[00:15:01.970]And yeah, I mean, I think that that's one thing
[00:15:04.630]that my background in anthropology has really pushed me
[00:15:08.470]to do, which is to approach these sorts of systems,
[00:15:13.500]not in terms of a single analytic framework,
[00:15:16.480]but as a holistic set of interrelated dynamics.
[00:15:20.550]And these kinds of relationships
[00:15:23.420]between people and economic systems
[00:15:27.050]or people and natural resources
[00:15:29.960]and complex earth systems like an aquifer turn out
[00:15:33.500]to be really hard to disentangle
[00:15:35.900]from the relationships with one another
[00:15:39.920]and with our relationships to the kind
[00:15:42.100]of imaginary the future that we really hope
[00:15:44.980]to bring into being.
[00:15:46.010]And so that is something that the book does,
[00:15:48.270]which was challenging to write and articulate,
[00:15:53.820]but it tries to track between these different discourses
[00:15:56.780]and domains in which depletion becomes interpreted,
[00:16:00.710]and to show that sometimes
[00:16:02.130]those interpretive domains really connect
[00:16:05.360]and are effective, but often they don't connect.
[00:16:09.850]And in the gaps or the disconnects
[00:16:12.790]between those interpretive frameworks,
[00:16:15.100]that's where something really important is happening.
[00:16:17.850]And if we don't take into consideration those disconnects,
[00:16:22.320]then often the proposed solutions
[00:16:24.640]to the problem are already circumscribed
[00:16:27.500]or they're already only applicable to one small dimension.
[00:16:33.780]And that's what I think
[00:16:35.190]and that's what I argue allows depletion
[00:16:38.030]to continue and to be perpetuated,
[00:16:40.790]even when many people really don't want
[00:16:44.730]to create a future of no water.
[00:16:48.390]They would really prefer something else.
[00:16:51.070]But the possibilities for sustainable,
[00:16:54.410]you know, inhabitation on the Plains,
[00:16:57.350]that becomes the question.
[00:16:59.100]What are those possibilities?
[00:17:00.350]What are conditioning those possibilities?
[00:17:02.530]And how can we make our Plains ideals
[00:17:05.370]more closely match reality?
[00:17:08.710]Lucas, what do you think is a call to action for people?
[00:17:12.170]I mean, we all understand the ultimate goal
[00:17:16.100]and the ultimate problem of this,
[00:17:18.320]which is we wanna save and preserve the aquifer
[00:17:21.890]and water for people, and, you know,
[00:17:23.990]the problem is that it's depleting.
[00:17:26.090]But in the proximate sense,
[00:17:28.580]what can everyday people start doing now,
[00:17:31.680]whether it be community meetings and so forth
[00:17:34.990]and putting in pressuring for policy?
[00:17:37.570]What does that look like?
[00:17:39.400]Yeah, I think that there are,
[00:17:41.000]thank you for that question, Dylan,
[00:17:43.150]I think that there are multiple domains
[00:17:46.800]in which action has to be taken
[00:17:49.070]if we're going to turn the existing solutions
[00:17:52.810]into effective actions.
[00:17:55.440]The good news is that there are a lot of great mechanisms
[00:17:58.570]for slowing decline in policy and in law
[00:18:01.140]across the Great Plains,
[00:18:03.290]and there's a lot of really great people and a lot
[00:18:05.800]of really smart people actively working on this all over
[00:18:09.300]from all kinds of different angles
[00:18:11.180]and disciplinary perspectives and political commitments
[00:18:14.840]and commitments to sustainable Plains communities.
[00:18:17.990]So we have the knowledge and we have the mechanisms,
[00:18:21.980]but what is required is a more concerted,
[00:18:25.580]collective action around specific awareness raising,
[00:18:31.470]around more effective policy
[00:18:34.040]that actually takes into account the realities
[00:18:37.460]that farmers are facing,
[00:18:39.580]and that creates the spaces for dialogues
[00:18:42.120]between producers and community members.
[00:18:45.770]So in some parts of the Ogallala,
[00:18:47.960]those pathways are clearer than in others.
[00:18:52.430]And we have to recognize that depletion doesn't happen
[00:18:55.560]in the same way.
[00:18:56.393]There's no cookie-cutter mold for aquifer depletion.
[00:18:59.750]There's no cookie-cutter solution for aquifer depletion.
[00:19:03.200]It's idiosyncratic and it requires taking seriously
[00:19:08.540]local grassroots initiatives.
[00:19:11.240]One of the other things that has to happen
[00:19:13.190]within that in order to make all that kind of hold together,
[00:19:15.820]in my opinion, is people taking personal responsibility
[00:19:19.590]for how they're positioned
[00:19:21.300]within these sorts of dynamics.
[00:19:24.100]And all too often, you know,
[00:19:26.980]the discourse from progressives
[00:19:30.140]and from conservatives can be reduced to an opposition.
[00:19:34.900]And that turns into accounts like,
[00:19:37.090]what's the matter with Kansas?
[00:19:38.790]Well, the point in aquifer depletion is
[00:19:41.440]that the whole world is Kansas.
[00:19:43.610]We're all in this together.
[00:19:45.830]There's extreme diversity of perspectives
[00:19:48.490]across the Great Plains,
[00:19:50.660]but everybody is colluding with aquifer depletion.
[00:19:53.700]And that's people on the coasts
[00:19:55.880]and that's people across the Plains.
[00:19:57.930]So it's a matter of taking personal responsibility,
[00:20:01.050]finding mechanisms to hold other people accountable
[00:20:05.090]to how they're benefiting from depletion or not,
[00:20:08.410]and then finding common ground
[00:20:10.020]and building alliances based on personal responsibility,
[00:20:13.580]not on ducking responsibility
[00:20:17.010]or just blaming people on the other side
[00:20:18.710]of a partisan divide for an issue
[00:20:20.910]that's actually collective.
[00:20:23.360]Well, can you tell us how we can find your work online
[00:20:27.490]and where people should go for your book?
[00:20:29.570]Thank you so much.
[00:20:30.630]The book is published by Princeton University Press.
[00:20:33.190]You can get it off their website, you can get it off Amazon,
[00:20:36.610]you can find more about it on my personal website,
[00:20:39.209]lucasbessire.net, and I think it's available
[00:20:42.290]in bookstores across the country, so.
[00:20:47.030]Great. Well, thank you so much for visiting with us today.
[00:20:49.910]We really appreciate it.
[00:20:51.550]Thank you so much.
[00:20:52.383]I really appreciate all the work you're doing.
[00:20:55.310]We'd like to thank Dr. Bessire
[00:20:56.780]for speaking with us today.
[00:20:58.330]Find all of our short Great Plains talks
[00:21:00.560]and interviews as videos and podcasts
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