By Christopher Flavelle
Why do people keep acting in s they know will ruin them? That question, so central to climate change, is at the heart of a new book about the emptying of the Ogallala Aquifer by farming in the American West, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
In “Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains,” Lucas Bessire writes that the aquifer, which runs from South Dakota to Texas and irrigates about one-sixth of world grain production, is being drained far faster than rain can replenish it, especially as heat and drought get worse. In the part of Southwest Kansas where he grew up, an estimated three-quarters of the water is already gone.
Dr. Bessire, an anthropology professor at the University of Oklahoma, returned to his childhood home to try to understand why people would participate in the destruction of the resource that their livelihoods depend on, rather than demanding extraction limits to make irrigation more sustainable.
Some farmers appear unbothered by the consequences of their actions, he writes. Others say they regret the damage they’re causing but feel powerless to stop it. Hope plays a role: Dr. Bessire cites the recurring idea of building sprawling aqueducts to transport water from afar once the aquifer is exhausted, calling it a dubious prospect that nonetheless provides justification to keep pumping.
The book bursts with passages that linger after reading. A farmer compares groundwater extraction to empty mining towns in the mountains: “They took what they want and when it ran out they left.” A circle of sand in place of what used to be cropland, “all that was left after the water had run out and farmers abandoned the field.” Groundwater evaporating as it is sprayed on corn and wheat, the moisture absorbed by clouds that Dr. Bessire watches drift away, taking the future with them.
In one especially haunting section, he compares the depletion of groundwater to the eradication of the bison on that same land in the early 1870s. People killed the animals in such numbers that the value of their hides plummeted, ensuring that few hunters made much money — but still the slaughter continued until there were no bison left.
“Maybe we were just a greedy lot who wanted to get ours and to hell with posterity,” Dr. Bessire quotes from a bison hunter’s memoir. His point is plain: The passage could just as easily have been written today.