Quiet unease on the Rio Grande
June 5, 2009 § 6 Comments
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).
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).
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.