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. 


Finalist, 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction

Winner, 2022 George Perkins Marsh Prize, American Society for Environmental History

Selection, 2022 Kansas Notable Book of the Year, Kansas State Library's Center for the Book

Winner, 2022 Bonney MacDonald Outstanding Western Book Award, Center for the Study of the American West

Winner, 2022 Robert Textor Prize for Excellence in Anticipatory Anthropology, American Anthropological Association

Winner, 2022 Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing, Society for Humanistic Anthropology


"[Running Out] bursts with passages that linger after reading. . . . haunting."—Christopher Flavelle, New York Times

"A short beauty of a book."—M.J. Andersen, Boston Globe

"Anthropologist Bessire (Behold the Black Caiman) combines ethnography and memoir in this deeply personal look at the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer. . . . A devastating portrait of how shortsighted decisions lead to devastating losses."—Publishers Weekly

"Lucas Bessire’s poignant critique of dramatic groundwater decline in southwest Kansas and resistance to addressing it offers perspective on our failure to confront climate change. . . . This tale on the ebbing of the Ogallala Aquifer is a valuable addition to the literature of aquifer depletion, compelling for its insider’s perspective and probing of contradictory human decisions that discount the future for immediate reward."—Dennis Dimick, Cleveland Review of Books

"To try to get a grip on the cultural forces behind the [aquifer] depletion, [Bessire] began interviewing stakeholders in the vicinity of his family’s property and wrote this very personal account, which includes both analysis of complicity and elegiac passages about his homeland’s history and our dry future. . . . Stirring."—Flora Taylor, American Scientist

"A profound and eloquent meditation on how and why societies behave in seemingly irrational ways in the face of dwindling resources, impoverished environments, and attenuated social relationships."—Paul Sutter, Kansas History

"Highly recommended . . . Bessire’s achievement in Running Out lies in his ability to open to the reader the water-consciousness of the people of the region. . . . Reading [Running Out] is time well spent."—Michael J. Smith, Nebraska History

"Running Out is a book for our times - it should have an impact on policy, and become a classic."—John Miles, National Parks Traveler

"Eminently readable. . . .The sense of loss that necessarily pervades Running Out is balanced by Bessire’s lyrical prose, whose consistently crisp beauty serves as a welcome respite."—Ed Meek, The Arts Fuse

"[Running Out] should be required reading for every environmental scientist."—David Dent, International Journal of Environmental Studies

Running Out is the single most important account of the aquifer depletion crisis in western Kansas. Bessire weaves together the threads of culture, science, history, and personal generational experience to show how the crisis developed and why it continues, and points the way forward for reversing this devastating trend.”—Connie Owen, water rights attorney and director of the Kansas Water Office

“One of the best books I’ve read this year.”—Amitav Ghosh, award-winning author of Sea of Poppies

“Both gripping page-turner and gentle mediation, Lucas Bessire’s Running Out is an all-American history of farming and ranching life on the high plains as the water slowly disappears from the parched and much-abused landscape. Rich with depth and pathos and insight, this unique volume is a genuine pleasure to read.”—Wendy Williams, New York Times bestselling author of The Horse and The Language of Butterflies

"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