Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains

The Ogallala aquifer has nourished life on the American Great Plains for millennia. But less than a century of unsustainable irrigation farming has taxed much of the aquifer beyond repair. The imminent depletion of the Ogallala and other aquifers around the world is a defining planetary crisis of our times. Running Out offers a uniquely personal account of aquifer depletion and the deeper layers through which it gains meaning and force.

Anthropologist Lucas Bessire journeyed back to western Kansas, where five generations of his family lived as irrigation farmers and ranchers, to try to make sense of this vital resource and its loss. His search for water across the drying High Plains brings the reader face to face with the stark realities of industrial agriculture, eroding democratic norms, and surreal interpretations of a looming disaster. Yet the destination is far from predictable, as the book seeks to move beyond the words and genres through which destruction is often known. Instead, this journey into the morass of eradication offers a series of unexpected discoveries about what it means to inherit the troubled legacies of the past and how we can take responsibility for a more inclusive, sustainable future.

An urgent and unsettling meditation on environmental change, Running Out is a revelatory account of family, complicity, loss, and what it means to find your way back home. Published by Princeton University Press, 2021, and available here. 


"A moving, melancholy, environment-focused memoir."Kirkus, starred review

"Bessire's Running Out masterfully shifts among scales and genres and in doing so lets the personal, the historic, and the geologic reveal their intimacies and competing urgencies. A beautiful and unusual book, and wholly original."—Rivka Galchen, author of Little Labors

"Lucas Bessire writes like a close witness to more than 150 years of ecological and human devastation on the Kansas plains. His distinctly American voice is engaging and vivid, mixing deeply rooted personal and national history, poetic observation, lucid despair, and calm yet stirring outrage. Running Outis destined to be a contemporary classic."—Francisco Goldman, author of Monkey Boy

"A delight. Running Out is a powerful examination of the forces draining the High Plains and an intimate meditation on complicity and responsibility. This book is for anyone who is concerned about climate change, who grieves for the aquifers, or who longs to understand the problems now facing us as we brush up against the limits of the natural world."—Lauren Groff, New York Times bestselling author of Fates and Furies

"Powerful. Bessire tells a tragic and infuriating story of massive, earth-shattering loss juxtaposed with the cultivated world and the human search for meaning and purpose."—Kathleen Stewart, author of A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an "Other" America

"A marvelous achievement. Weaving a thread of human decency through a blanket of unrecoverable loss, Bessire delivers a damning message about our great incapacity to respond to an imminent crisis and our misplaced faith in an agricultural economic treadmill."—Loka Ashwood, author of For-Profit Democracy: Why the Government Is Losing the Trust of Rural America