Not A Drop To Spare: Water In The West – By Jesse Wolf Hardin
Not A Drop To Spare: Water In The West
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
As you might imagine, our voluntary backwoods lifestyle is a major source of curiosity for many of the urban folk we happen to meet, and one of the first questions out of their mouths is “Do you guys have running water?” I usually just tell them “No” and leave it at that, preferring to let them think we’re miserable grubbing cave dwellers, rather than to go to the effort of explaining and describing what I consider to be a historically correct and personally ennobling way for a fellow to live his life. And it’s not like we don’t have “running water” either… I mean, whenever it rains it runs off our metal roof, and then runs down the gutter to the proverbial rain barrel. When it really storms we run around with sloshing buckets of it, madly transferring from one barrel to another. When the house jug is empty, we run to the barrels to fill it. And when we run out, we run down to the river in the truck to fill up, or sometimes to a favorite neighbor’s house about four miles away for a barrel or two of theirs.
Our neighbor’s deep well is undoubtedly a more steady source to rely on than the sporadic cloud cover, but it, too, is dependent on the mercy of the rain and snowfall to restore the aquifers faster than we pump it out. In a serious drought such as our region periodically suffers, even the best of wells can one day go dry. And in the case of a power failure or collapse of the grid, civil unrest or the eventual degradation or implosion of our vaulted modern civilization, it may no longer be possible to transport the liquid gold in gasoline powered vehicles or bring it to the surface with electric pumps. Argument for and against the selling of county water rights to out-of-county agencies and industries, is only among the first indications of what will be increasing contention over the finite supplies of water around here.
The political wrangling over the Southwest’s diminishing watercourses has been in the making for a long time and, contrary to what you may have heard, it’s not as simple as endangered fish versus farmers. Special interests have been impacting our rivers for a long time now, diverting water from the traditional acequia systems that the rural population depends on, while allowing the native trees decline. Needless to say, the wider a river gets, the more shallow it will run, and the faster the rate of evaporation. Native willows and cottonwoods contribute to water retention by binding the banks and directing the river into meandering channels. And to the delight of the trout, they slow down evaporation by shading and cooling the water surface.
Financial interests with the big money (the “corporados,” as some call them) want us to think that the recent disputes are between the valley’s food, alfalfa and cattle producers, and a decidedly homely little minnow that never grows large enough to eat. Tain’t so! Truth is, on one side of the equation what we’ve got are high-tech factories with high water demands, a thirsting as well as thriving tourist industry in the northern half of the state, and herds of dollar-driven developers racing to convert old family ranches into ever more fragmented subdivisions. On the other side are the area’s beleaguered rural residents, family gardeners and a small but healthy-flowing river that the endangered minnows merely symbolize, allies in this battle whether they know it or not. Unfortunately, no matter what either the ecologists, ranchers or bureaucrats prefer, I’m afraid the lion’s share of this state’s vital water resources will continue to be reserved for the major high-technology industries that the legislature promotes, and find its way down the shower drains of the proliferate Albuquerque and Santa Fe hotels.
As I write this, a fine felting of snow covers the ground around our cabins, is melting from the metal roofs, dancing down our earth-toned enameled gutters, filling our modest number of barrels and overspilling into carefully cemented channels that divert the eroding streams away from our buildings’ foundations. At such times, concerns about water conservation can seem either distant or exaggerated. But this year, we had almost no rain from September until January, and not until now are we getting the season’s first snowfall. The relatively few inches of fluffy white succor will only temporarily swell our river, with most of the new moisture quickly absorbed into our parched Southwestern soils. Tellingly, little will penetrate down into its subterranean folds to replenish the coveted aquifer. Folks without a river to draw from, have long depended on wells to tap the water essential to families and the production of food, and human residency in many parts of our county long deemed unsustainable due to the impractical depths one would have to drill in order to reach any. And it’s only getting worse.
It might be wise not to take what we have for granted, and never take a drink… unless we first think: about where our water comes from, and how difficult to obtain it can be. About how badly we need it, and the impracticality and even impossibility of life without it. In the long run, it’s no different in the arid mountains of New Mexico than elsewhere: while sometimes there may seem to be enough, there’s never really a drop to spare.
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