Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains

Finalist, National Book Awards 2021 for Nonfiction

ISBN 9780691212647
Princeton University Press
Lucas Bessire

Lucas Bessire is an American writer, filmmaker, and anthropologist. Author of Behold the Black Caiman: A Chronicle of Ayoreo Life, he is currently associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. (Photo credit: Tony Rinaldo) More about this author >

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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.

Judges Citation

Lucas Bessire returned to his native Kansas to explore water depletion, a grievous environmental disaster unfolding in a region already haunted by the loss of people and wildlife. He found layers of stories, myths, and realities; in following these competing narratives, Running Out questions everything from deep geological history to family lore to bureaucratic policies. “The past could not be rectified,” Bessire writes, but in this haunting meditation on place, we find space for a better future.


Lucas Bessire, 2021 National Book Awards Nonfiction Finalist, reads from RUNNING OUT