Back Forty: The past, present and a possible future of the Ogallala aquifer

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By Nancy Averett

In Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains, Lucas Bessire, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma, weaves together the personal and the political. Bessire returns to his childhood home, a farm in southwest Kansas, to explore how people feel about the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, which stretches beneath parts of eight states: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. Farmers and agribusinesses in those states depend on the aquifer to irrigate crops. Because they are pumping out water faster than it can be replenished, there’s a real risk that parts, if not all, of the aquifer will go dry. Experts say that southwestern Kansas may have only 10-20 years of groundwater left. If the aquifer does dry up, experts say, it could take 6,000 years of rainfall to fill it back up. 

For Bessire, it’s a story of environmental ruin that’s intertwined with his family’s history. His great grandfather was one of the first to start tapping the aquifer in southwest Kansas. During his research, Bessire finds a box of files belonging to his late grandmother stored in his father’s barn. The files reveal a strong, outspoken woman who dreamed of being a writer and was determined to have historians mark the true spot of a spring that served as an oasis for settlers on the Santa Fe Trail. The spring is dry now, thanks to modern agriculture. 

Bessire offers readers a glimpse into the thoughts of local farmers and their fears and rationalizations about continuing to pump water from the Ogallala. But he also acknowledges that what’s happening in southwest Kansas is a global story. The same agricultural technologies that helped deplete the groundwater in the Kansas plains were spread around the world by the Green Revolution. Groundwater depletion is happening in China, Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Mexico, Yemen, northern Africa, and California’s Central Valley. Climate change is making the situation worse. 

I spoke with Bessire via Zoom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Early in the book you write that ‘agribusiness myths reduce the aquifer depletion to economic common sense,’ but that, in fact, ‘such logics do not explain depletion but justify and perpetuate it.’ What do you mean by that?

Sometimes the idea of profit is a myth used to rationalize something that otherwise does not make sense. It is a myth that farmers always make money by depleting non-renewable groundwater and that depletion is justified because it leads to profit. Many small family farmers aren’t making that much money. Growing irrigated corn in western Kansas, for example, is often not a profitable endeavor unless you have a certain economy of scale. It depends on the year, on the market prices. Most farmers are balanced on a razor’s edge all the time. But big corporate agribusiness executives always make money. 

In the mid ’70s, in response to concerns about the aquifer, Kansas created Groundwater Management Districts. You went to several GMD meetings. What did you learn from those meetings about why they’re not conserving groundwater?

One of the most striking things about groundwater governance in Kansas is that there is an intermediary political governing structure, the Groundwater Management Districts. They were originally created for a good reason, which was to support local self-determination in relation to non-renewable resources. People were aware of the drop in groundwater, they knew it was a problem for the future, and they wanted to do a better job of regulating it.

Over time, different management districts have taken different paths. Some have taken a proactive stance and really fulfilled those hopes for stewardship. This is especially true in northwestern Kansas, where the management district and farmers have placed limits on their own groundwater pumping. They reduced the amount that they were using by quite a bit and made more money by doing so. 

But there are other districts where agribusiness runs the show. There is an active commitment to prolonging what they call ‘controlled decline.’ In that framework, economic profit is conflated with social well-being and social prosperity in the future. But that is a myth. Also, the management districts are fundamentally exclusive. The only people who can participate in the groundwater management process are those who have rights to at least one acre foot of water per year, or who own at least 40 acres of land. That excludes the vast majority of residents and townspeople from participating in decisions that will affect the long-term health and viability of their communities and their families. It benefits the few at the expense of many.

Your great-grandfather was among the first to tap into the aquifer. At one point, he was the largest landowner in the county, but he died a million dollars in debt. His daughter, Fern, was passionate about memorializing the local springs that fed into the Cimarron River; she stood up in church and said something, perhaps that the congregants were hypocrites, that led to her being put in a mental hospital. It’s a poignant part of the story. How did learning more about your great-grandfather and Fern affect you? 
Fern became my guide, in many ways. She definitely became my inspiration. It wasn’t until I found her archives in my father’s barn that I knew I would write a book. It seemed like her interest in the dwindling groundwater was a kind of allegory or metaphor for the challenges that she was facing in her life. They weren’t just challenges for her. They were structural problems that affected a lot of people on the plains at that time. Part of her story was reckoning with her relationship with her father. Part of my story became reckoning with my relationship with her, and also with her son, my father. 

In many ways, the story of aquifer depletion tells an environmental history of loss. But it is not so easy to tell who is to blame for what. In fact, ‘blame’ can become another kind of blinder that prevents us from finding more sustainable solutions. Addressing my own family’s role forced me to think about how we’re all complicit in these sorts of issues. We are all responsible, to some degree, for what comes next. Without Fern and all the work that she did, I would not have been able to understand that dimension of the story.

The comments from individual farmers and ranchers were revealing. I love the guy who said that he would fight any water regulations by filing a lawsuit. But then he kind of winked and said he would actually accept a 25-percent reduction. There was also the guy who stood up at one of the GMD meetings and expressed concern about the aquifer, and then was carefully ushered out of the room. And, of course, you have the guy who got death threats for trying to change the system. 

One of the biggest discoveries for me was that everybody knows aquifer depletion is a problem. It’s not a secret. And everybody wants it to be solved. Local farming families, especially, are committed to a better future. What was also surprising to me was that most people want fair, effective, transparent regulation that works for everybody. At the same time, there are powerful interests that oppose regulation in the name of those same communities and those same people. One of the challenges is how to come together to support local communities and local perspectives, and to create interventions and policies that work. A lot of great people in Kansas are moving in that direction. That is a reason to be hopeful.