Quiet unease on the Rio Grande

June 5, 2009 § 6 Comments

Rio Grande as seen from the air, approaching Albuquerque.

Rio Grande as seen from the air, approaching Albuquerque.

The Times piece broke my creekfreak silence.  I was on an unintended sabbatical, my grandfather having passed away, work piling high.  But I’m back now.   Being in New Mexico to be with family, I couldn’t help but also see the waterways.  Looking out during the descent into Albuquerque is always a pleasure – to see the Rio Grande’s welcoming green bosques, the adjacent farmland, cutting through the hot llano, this richness made possible only by the river.  For all our ipods and text-messaging and satellite imagery, it really is this simple an equation.  This is what keeps us going.  

And in New Mexico, as in the former Mexican California, the traditional hispano water-agriculture relationship is negotiated through a community water-sharing system, the acequias (that’s the NM word – zanjas being the angeleno word, both meaning ditch).  

Cottonwoods lining the acequia near my grandfather's house.

Cottonwoods lining the acequia near my grandfather's house.

The acequias are often lined with cottonwood trees, they might look almost like little streams, except they are in straight lines and have little berms and floodgates.  In Los Lunas, my cousins were telling me to look for pheasants, early in the morning, near the acequias.  Amaranth (“wild spinach” my mom called it), a green as well as a grain, also grows near water, and can be seen alongside the acequias.  They also served as community links – my cousins said – back in the day, anyway – it would be ok to walk along the acequias to get from one person’s house to another.  I might try it to walk over to the Rio Grande, which was a short distance away, they suggested.  The sheltering trees, next to the water, the growing food-stuffs, did create a sense of security and permanence for this city-dweller, but being an angelena, I drove.

Maintaining that permanence is the job of the mayordomo, the traffic controller of the water flows, who sees to it that each farm gets its allotment. My great-uncle held that role for the Acequia del Llano in Santa Fe for a while.  Mayordomos organize the ditch cleanings, make sure gates are opened and closed.  In the world of small-worlds, my co-worker told me he used to get yelled at to go open the floodgates, back when he worked at the Santa Fe Audubon Center years ago.  “Must have been your uncle” he laughed.  Years ago, when I last spoke to my great-uncle about it (he too has since passed on), he had been thinking of lining the ditch in concrete, to prevent losses to infiltration.  I did notice that some of the ditches in Los Lunas were also lined in concrete, and wondered if that affected the health of the cottonwoods.  This, after all, is the microcosm of the MWDs huge project, lining its canals in south San Diego County to prevent “losses” of water intended for cities and farms, that support wetlands and life south of the border.  

And thus creeps in the unease.  For water and New Mexico have an even more delicate dance than water and Southern California.  The finality of New Mexico’s finite resources are a little clearer than here in LA.  You see that llano out there, ready to move in if the water table drops, and it is dropping while urban development bears down on the desert landscape.  My cousins told me that some acequias are under pressure to sell out their rights.  And here, this is about more than water, it is about a way of life, a bonding with the land, a culture.  You sell out that water and you’ve sold out your culture, your legacy, your land (and, I was hearing, your right to bitch and moan about the changes you’ve sold out to).

Sign in a field in Tomé, New Mexico.

Sign in a field in Tomé, New Mexico.

Meanwhile, Santa Fe has enacted very strict water conservation regulations to limit its diversions of water, presumably from the San Juan-Chama Diversion Project.  Did I just say there’s finality to New Mexico’s water resources?  As in Southern California, there is a federal project that diverts water from the Colorado River into New Mexico.  The already over-allocated Colorado River.  

And this diversion is holding, just barely, a lifeline to the endangered silvery minnow, minion of the Rio Grande.  Due to overpumping and development in Albuquerque.  Albuquerque has worked hard to wean itself of its prior waterhog ways – it has dropped per capita consumption from 250 gals/person/day to about 135-150.  Still has a way to go to meet Santa Fe’s 109, or Tucson’s 107, or if you believe the stats, LA’s 96 – but we all have a long way to go to compare with Barcelona’s 39 or Queensland’s 40-something.  And it probably will take bridging such a gap if Albuquerque – and the entire state of New Mexico  – seeks to maintain that vital and essential green valley that is the Rio Grande.


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§ 6 Responses to Quiet unease on the Rio Grande

  • Joe Linton says:

    Thanks… very evocative. Maybe we should do a Creek Freak travel guide.

  • Nancy Steele says:

    Welcome back to blogging. Very thoughtful piece. My grandmother managed the water in Phoenix but her title is lost to me. Was she a zanjera? Mayordomo? I don’t know what they called it, but she opened the gates and collected the money, I think. They have long since stopped the practice of sending water to residential lots from the canal through ditches and yards are slowly losing their berms as people flatten the edges for more “efficient” irrigation with sprinkler systems.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      Thanks Nancy – do you think your grandmother’s involvement in water was an influence on your interests, even though it might seem mundane to the outsider? Just curious – of course as a kid I never thought about these things, but still attribute my interest today to a creek I played in, and then only later noticed other tie-ins. BTW, your grandmother does sound like the Mayordomo or zanjera. Phoenix has no doubt changed a great deal since she opened those floodgates.

  • Mark Brown says:

    About thirty years ago I was living in the Pecos Highlands with some Indian friends who have a ranch that is locked in seasonally, close to the federal forest area south-east of Santa FE. They raise mostly sheep. My friends rebuilt a hundred yr. plus old adobe house with 3 ft. thick walls and rough plank floors. We would sit eating our meals watching cats teach their kittens how to hunt live mice or gophers that they would bring in. All this ensued with much visual and sound attracting action. Now and then one of the practice models would escape though a hole in the floor. Outside the door you could stand at a humming Bird feeder with some fifteen or twenty birds flitting in and out around your head. It was scary as they made a buzzing noise much like giant bees. Across from this house was an older house, mud chinked with old high button shoes in the top of it. Around the area were rusting farm equipment made of wood with iron parts.
    This is just some of the color of the place. What triggered my memory through your article was the method of irrigation you describe.
    This is just what is done high in the mountains on that ranch.
    Every day we would walk along small and smaller mud ditches opening,closing and removing silt up in the little canals. All this was done with just a shovel. The ditches ran along the tops of pasture land that sloped down the mountain. We would just open or close up a small breach here and there to run down and saturate a fan sized slope.
    I believe that I have read about or recognized the same system being used though out the ancient cultural areas down though the South Americas.
    At the very least this system Is an ancient system fitted to mountainous terrain that works. It is gravity dependent and ingenious in the area I am referring to. The one you describe sounds like flat lands understandably as they are bordering the Rio Grande (I once found a dead beaver on the shore of another stretch of that river, I know, Huh! where did that come from! Just stream of consciousness)
    You do have quite a sturdy foundation running though your family history. I’ve got a line of pioneers in my blood as well.
    You do paint Very colorful mental pictures along with your facts.
    Thanks Mark
    P.S. I think one of the kinks in L.A.’s water supply is a little perch.
    Unrelated subject: egli is a tiny perch that live in some of the lakes in Switzerland. Very tasty! and novel.

  • Emily Green says:

    A wonderful piece. I remember house-hunting in Taos and learning about the New Mexico water system and wondering what would happen as the city slowly put swelling suburbs on mains. And, no, I don’t believe the 96gpd for LA, however maybe there are enough apartment dwellers and homes on small lots to make it true. Still, hard to believe.

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