Ogallala Underground Blues – @BigPivots – Coyote Gulch

A Kansas farm boy returns home to understand his role in groundwater depletion. He finds culture and politics as confusing and confusing as the geology of the Ogallala Aquifer itself.

Simple measurements of the Ogallala Aquifer are staggering. This somewhat interconnected body of water underlying the high plains accounts for one-third of all irrigation in the United States. It supports one-sixth of the world’s annual cereal production.

Water in the underground sands, silts and gravels that stretch from South Dakota to Texas, including parts of eastern Colorado, has been deposited over millions of years. Today, in the shortest geological time, barely longer than the lifetimes of the oldest baby boomers, this most precious resource has been mined to near extinction over large swathes of the High Plains.

This is especially true along its edges, such as in New Mexico, but even in some central parts, including southwestern Kansas. Wells can be drilled deeper, but that can only hasten the calculation that many seem to want to deny. The apparent fullness of today that manifests in the many circles of hay and alfalfa irrigated by center pivot sprinklers simply cannot continue indefinitely. Evidence of a precipitous decline abounds.

Lucas Bessire, anthropologist and native son of southwestern Kansas, explores this exhaustion in his masterful “Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains.” For good reason, it was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award.

The depletion of the Ogallala aquifer has produced several books as well as other journalism articles. Bessire has a narrower but interesting approach. Instead of trying to tell this through the eight-state area, he focuses on southwest Kansas through the lens of four generations of his family: a great-grandfather who was a pioneer in this new mid-twentieth-century groundwater mining, his grandmother who was at her jagged edges hard to reconcile, and a father from whom Bessire was at least half estranged but who becomes, in this book, a partner in the detective work.
Bessire’s book is not the least of his own journey to the place of his education to examine it with new eyes, as if he were a stranger, and thus to probe his own complicity.

Also in these pages, Bessire casts a glance over his shoulder, both at his family but also at the history of the region, full of the impoverishments of yesteryear. In this, he seeks to give meaning to the present in order to assume responsibility for the future. In this struggle to define what it will take to live more sustainably in the world, he draws inspiration from his long-deceased grandmother. She had struggled in her life to end her addiction to alcohol, drugs and tobacco. The first step, she writes in half-century-old notes, “is to admit that I am not responsible for the past, but I am responsible for tomorrow.

This sighting born out of her grandmother’s pain is one for all in Ogallala Country – and, though Bessire won’t dwell on it, all of humanity.

Working through the many great ideas of “Running Out” costs nothing. Each page contains phrases to savor and, in my case, paragraphs to highlight in yellow, for later savoring and deep understanding.
“Running Out” has a dreamy and confusing theme, clearly intended. In his quest to understand, Bessire finds mazes of exhaustion, layers of deception, a dried up river and a waterless spring that was part of his family’s farm, an area where hydrologists now estimate three quarters of water were taken. There are clouded memories, an eerie haze, a numbing vapor, and a ghostly presence.

Still, there is the ghost of her grandmother who, in her lifetime, was subjected by her masters to electroshock therapy in an effort to create amnesia. She spent the rest of her life, says Bessire, trying to find the water of her youth that had disappeared.

There are also blurry boundaries, puzzles and contradictions, and the confusing logic used to justify exhaustion. The groundwater management district meetings he and his father attend illustrate this distorted logic.

These districts, under Kansas law, have jurisdiction over exhaustion. At a meeting he attends expecting a debate on the future of the aquifer, he finds instead blandness, words and a mood “strangely flattened and trivial, as if veiled behind a medium hazy which smothers words and distorts time”. Gatherings of aging white men he describes as dishonesty disguised as monotony.

Kansas Aqueduct Route via Circle of Blue

At one such meeting, “John”, whom he describes as the civil servant playing the role of master of ceremonies, insists on the distinction between “disability”, a word which he discourages, and his strong preference, “the levy compensation”. The discourse then extends to the solution, imported water.

Another meeting produced a more fuzzy logic: imposing limits on pumping does not provide an answer because it would force the transition from irrigated land to less valuable non-irrigated agricultural land and thus a sharp blow to the economic platform for the region. As such, the exhausting irrigation must continue. Again, the answer to the inevitable lies in importing water from elsewhere, presumably with the federal government footing the bill for a canal (and pumps) from the Mississippi River.

Ogallala aquifer. Credit: Great Pivots

This solution is only slightly less unlikely than the giant machines some envision to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The federal government played a role in creating this mess through its crop insurance programs that favor irrigation, Bessire says. Even more clearly, he blames commercial agriculture, the majority owners of the land in this southwestern Kansas county, and the mostly hidden influence that makes groundwater districts forums for doublespeak. Some farmers use disproportionate amounts of water, and those who advocate pumping moderation have little voice. Exploitation, he says, is undemocratic.

Bessire’s four chapters – Lines, Bones, Dust, Clouds – are carefully crafted, thanks at least in part to a year of fellowship at Harvard University. Prose constantly delights. Driving at night with his father, he observes “the turning pivots, under the turning stars”. On another trip through “cities with courthouse plazas and false fronts”, he sees “emptied houses (which) crumble in arrested motion”.

Exploitation, extinction and extermination are sub-themes of his interest in exhaustion. It recounts the killing of the once vast bison herds that all but disappeared in an explosion of gluttony in 1872-1874. The bison bones on the railroad siding in Granada, in southeastern Colorado, were 12 feet high, 12 feet wide and 800 yards long. Most buffalo hunters didn’t make money, he observed – a metaphor, if you will, for farmers who are depleting the aquifer today.

The extermination of bison was also a somewhat conscious decision, a way of forcing Native American tribes off the land so it could be farmed and ranched. Part of that was the Sand Creek Massacre, the site of which he visited in Colorado, just across the border from Kansas, with his grandmother in the 1990s. on his own incomprehension of this story which preludes his existence there, as a child of the plains. “We lived among the rubble of genocide and dispossession in a landscape that had been transformed,” he says.
No mention is made of critical race theory, but this conclusion invites comparisons.

The book has no spare luggage. It has a disciplined focus reflected in its relative brevity that belies enormous research. There is no fat here. The bibliography cites over 400 books and other sources. His account of the Sand Creek Massacre, something I prepared deeply, exemplifies this depth.

We could have wished for a little more in two areas. In 2017, a groundwater district in northwest Kansas voluntarily adopted restrictions on the rate of decline. Bessire explains this but does not identify what was different there, why corporate interests did not prevail.

The second element concerns the end result of pumping water. Most crops grown with the Ogallala design feed livestock. Bessire addresses this – really, it’s at the heart of his book:

“The scale of industrial agriculture is staggering,” he says. “Southwestern Kansas is home to some of the nation’s largest feedlots, beef and poultry packing plants, slaughterhouses, dairies, milk drying plants and hog farms. Multinational meatpacking companies operate slaughterhouses that process several thousand cattle every day. They are all billion dollar companies. They determine farmers’ choices to produce corn, silage, sorghum or alfalfa. Their profits depend on the removal of the aquifer. In other words, there is a multi-billion dollar business interest in preventing regulation and pumping the water out until it runs out.

I might have liked to see this cattle story developed in more detail, another full chapter, in fact. It may be another book, a sequel.

Trucks deliver the corn crop to a feedlot near Imperial, Neb. Photo/Allen Best

The cost of eating meat is heavily, heavily subsidized and cannot continue at its current rate. We borrow based on the opportunities of future generations with no clear way to pay that debt. I am, by the way, a meat eater.

This conclusion stemmed in part from my own research on the Ogallala in the context of eastern Colorado. My work has been marginal. My missions have been to praise the efforts made to innovate. I wasn’t given a blank check to investigate, or taken out a second mortgage on the house while I asked the tough questions Bessire asked (he camped in his father’s barn).

But I sensed what Bessire explains in his introduction, that “the depletion of the Hautes Plaines aquifer is a defining drama of our time. Within it are condensed the planetary crises of ecologies, democracy and interpretation. It demands an answer.

To this I will add a quote from my most recent interviews, a water district official who said that ultimately farmers in Ogallala are selling water. As such, he said, they would have to exploit groundwater for high-value crops.

The search for truth seldom comes easily. Geology can also be very complex. In her opening passage, Bessire tells us about the difficulty of working through the politics and cultures of exhaustion.

“The sediments are stacked vertically in layers. They are scattered and unevenly distributed. Between them follow one another repetitive themes: memory and amnesia, homeland and exile, attachment and letting go. Sometimes the layers flow together and connect. At others, they are interrupted and blocked.
The fact that he emerged with a book worthy of consideration for the nation’s top book-writing award is a testament to his success navigating these physical underpasses and the like.


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