The Mesa and Chinle's River
The awkward silence on the conference call suggests we are new at this. “Is everyone here?” comes the timid call to order from the Chair. No one answers him despite all of us being there. He makes the correct assumption that, at the very least, a quorum has assembled for our annual acequia association meeting. The meeting is being held in early March of 2020. Taos, or at the very least the Randall Reservoir and Acequia Association, is ahead of COVID-19, but folks are leery about not being able to look each other in the eye (not everyone had video conferencing options so we were on the old fashioned kind of conference call - with a phone in the middle of the room). What ensues is a lengthy discussion about how to share the limited water in our acequia (the Spanish word used in these parts to connote an irrigation ditch). The group annually meets together to discuss and decide how to use the water in the “most beneficial” ways for the parcientes (basically the humans who have “rights” and share interest in the fate of the water) and the land.
Acequia associations have been sharing water in this way in this place for hundreds of years. The guiding principles of the local acequias are that water should be governed locally and democratically. They have long included an extraordinary mix of Taos Pueblo, Spanish, and Anglo customs regarding water - centuries of accumulated cultural knowledge about water use, availability, and scarcity. About 1200 working acequias exist throughout New Mexico today -- 55 are in the Taos region. They support sustainable agriculture and are living institutions that, in Northern New Mexico, have included a variety of cultural perspectives (Puebloans, Hispanos, and Anglos) while incorporating prevailing law (currently state and federal water law). Importantly, they work within the ecological bounds of watersheds. Of course, they have not been without conflict, but there is process and people to try and work things out. The chair of the association works closely with a mayordomo who works with farmers who, over the years, have learned how to use the water with great care. As Ernesto Atencio explains, acequias are not just irrigation systems, they are also social and democratic institutions.(1) The meeting begins.
First up is an almost breathless accounting of how much water we may have available this year. The winter was good and the spring, so far, looks to be wet. Lots of discussion of snowpack and forecasts for the spring runoff. There is a brief but lively shared celebration of having a full reservoir. No one knows for sure what summer will bring but hopes are high. Then comes a long conversation about whether a user should get some money back for being overcharged his dues for a decade (he just figured it out last year). Let’s just say, I think we did the right thing, but he went away irritated. Ah democracy. Next up, a discussion of who wants to use their “right” and who wants to “bank” their water. Remember even in the unique and rather progressive acequias, water is a commodity not a deity - this is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Anglo “contribution” to the institution. My partner and I have “banked” the past two years but this year...we want to plant. Thus ensues a listing of who else might want to irrigate already established fields or plant new ones. The main problem to solve - how will we split the water when there isn’t enough to meet all of our appropriations? Technically those who have the oldest rights get the water first, but the acequia allows for that rule to be shifted to help the community. The planting of new fields (essentially revitalizing abandoned land in order to fix nitrogen, recharge groundwater, and stop invasive, non native species) is enthusiastically supported by the members because there is an ethic among us that when increasingly more land is healthy, everyone benefits. It is decided that we get to use our 4 acre feet on our 3 acres of land to “restore” it to at least something healthier than it is now. This will mean planting a mix of oats (which grow quickly with water and nurture the other grasses) and native grasses (which take much longer to take root and grow). We will use our appropriation and then hope for rain. No one knows for sure when monsoons might start. If they do.
Fast forward 4 months. The monsoons have not started and hope is starting to wither. The 4 acre feet were put to use and sprigs of oats and sideoats grama are now obvious. If the field grows well, we may get a cutting to feed to local livestock. But if the rains don’t come we will have to be grateful we got a start on arresting the horrific desertification that had encroached on the unused parcel for over 30 years. Invasive species, that grow no matter how bad things get - obnoxious plants like Russian Thistle and Tumbleweed (native but still invasive), had planted themselves in the field coaxing...encouraging maybe even...critters of all kinds who live and love in apocalyptic landscapes.
After spending a long morning on Toothacres, pulling Russian Thistle (we refuse to use chemical treatments although many times during the morning I cussed that decision) and flooding prairie dog holes, I head to the feed store for Chinle’s favorite treats. Standing in line, I hear a mask-muddled conversation about rain. There has not been any appreciable rain since early June. Both folks are worried about their crops - “even the corn is sad” says one. “Our acequia ran out 3 weeks ago and she (the corn) is struggling to grow strong.” The other shook his head slowly. “It will come,” he said, “water is life.” “Water is life,” replied the other nodding her head. I felt like I was in mass. Amen. The feed store employee’s eyes crinkled in what we can assume was a rueful smile. “Well, if it’s comin’, it better hurry,” he said.
“Water is life” is an ethic in these parts. You don’t just overhear it in the line at the feed store, you see it on signs in Taos Village. You read it in articles in the local paper. It’s on websites of local organizations committed to untangling the maze of law and custom that govern the distribution, conservation, and use of the scarce gift. “Water is life” isn’t just a catchy slogan for Taoseños. It is a deep-seated belief that comes from an ancient understanding of the ways in which everything is interconnected and the ways in which things die when water disappears.
This fear of disappearance drives all human custom and policy around water in the West even though most folks here (especially in 21st century big cities) likely have little knowledge of where the water is located originally or the journey it has taken to flow magically out of the faucet.
Even where I sit, it is almost impossible to figure out where the water comes from. Every day, Chinle and I drink long and hard from the faucet after our hikes. We use water to cook and to rinse off mud from our river adventures. And there isn’t a stream in sight - just miles and miles of sagebrush and an occasional juniper tree. Houses dot the mesa as far as the eye can see - decent sized lots with little density. Chinle loves to watch Taos mountain shift and change as the light passes. Sunset is her favorite, and she seems to know that the mountain is mother to her two favorite places on earth, Rio Grande and Rio Hondo. But when we sit on the patio of the house on the mesa, those rivers seem far far away - as though they are simply dreams made up by sun-battered desert dwellers.
No matter how far away the rivers seem, though, they are deeply connected to this seemingly waterless mesa. Indeed, the truth is that the rivers’ very existence is ensured by the water that does indeed exist here. Through a maze of complex geology, the vast sagebrush mesa in Taos and the valleys to the east and south of it sit on top of a collection of reservoirs of groundwater. The rivers, the acequia, the creeks all exist because of the presence of that groundwater. I’m no geologist (although I almost majored in it and sometimes still wish I had), so I’ll spare you the laywoman’s understanding of deposits of basalt, limestone, and clastics and the differences between shallow groundwater and “deep” groundwater here and across the globe. Put most simply, the surface water of acequias and rivers depends on the relative closeness of groundwater to the surface of the earth. So just as Chinle’s rivers live thanks to runoff from Taos mountain, so too do they exist thanks to the presence of groundwater.
Out at Toothacres, about 6 miles from the house on the mesa where I’m staying, we are lucky enough to have surface water, municipal water (which is just a well-managed mix of ground and surface water by a public agency), and a groundwater well. So when the acequia ran dry in mid June, and we weren’t able to plant on the other parcel of land, I mentioned to the watershed guru who is helping us that since we have a well on the property, maybe we could do some dryland farming and use just a bit of groundwater to get the grasses started. I felt like a “real” Arizonan when I asked if that would be a way to find water for irrigation...agricultural Arizonans LOVE to pump water. “At least I think we have groundwater,” I explained. When we had bought the land three years ago, I reached out to the State Engineer of New Mexico to make sure we had done all the paperwork correctly. I still haven’t heard back. The guru laughed and said, “You are ok. The State Engineer only calls if you’ve done something wrong.”
The trouble is, of course, that with groundwater it’s almost impossible to know when you’ve “done something wrong.” First it is hard to tell what is "right" and, if you know that, it is nearly impossible to keep tabs on your relationship to the rightness. In the days of better technology, it’s a little easier. One can (and in some states is required) to install a meter on ones well and know the total gallons (or acre feet) one is pumping out (per minute, per year). But from what I can tell New Mexico, there is not really an actual limit that is much enforced in New Mexico, especially if you have an older well and older water right.(2)
I wanted to know where the water to the Taos mesa house comes from, but it’s almost impossible to do so without having a PhD in geohydrology. It’s hard to find information about which basin your well draws from specifically (broadly it is the Rio Grande Basin). Is the water we use in a confined basin? unconfined? It’s hard to tell how much water is there this minute (vs how much was there when the well was originally drilled - which for us on Toothacres was 40 years ago but here on the mesa may have only been 20 years). In addition to finding it tough to know where the water is coming from, it is also (so far) impossible to figure out how much water we should be using. At the acequia, I know my limit. 4 acre feet (an acre foot is about 325,851 gallons) per year for irrigation (understood as a benefit to the community). But try as I might, no one can tell me how many acre feet this house should use on an annual basis or, just as and maybe more importantly, how much it actually does use. One would think that that limit should be communicated widely and often, and it should probably shift depending on the year - on how much snow and rain arrives in any given year and how well the aquifer is being recharged. But talk to folks on the mesa, and limits are something no one seems to be really measuring or at least not for every well that dots Taos Valley. In theory, anyone who has applied for and gotten a domestic water right in New Mexico has 1 acre feet a year of water - but who is counting? If the well is old enough or not in a monitored area, then likely no one. More importantly, that “one size fits all” approach to domestic use is arbitrary. It started out as 3 acre feet - set in an earlier time when few could imagine anyone wanting to move to this godforsaken country. Maybe no one counted on the hordes of people who would someday crave the adventure of shredding a mountain (just think about that verb) or have a deep driving need to drink in the light of this place. A few quirky, intrepid folks might come, sure. But hordes?? No one could imagine it. But that’s what is beginning to happen so the State Engineer decreased the amount, but the question still must be asked, what happens when there are far more people pumping and far less snow recharging? For example, what if, after we bought a property with a shared well, we decided it was too hot here in the summer and our sweet dog needed a vast grassy lawn instead of the sagebrush? Could we pour the water necessary to make it lush and soft? It’s hard to find the answer to that question, but if we went ahead with that lawn, we would have to understand that for every gallon we use, we are taking water from the ground that must be replenished or the rivers might stop flowing on the surface. Those who have rights to the surface water have priority. So our pumping to water the lawn could, in the long run, interfere with a farmer’s water right 20 miles away and could harm the flow of the Rio Taos nearby. Unfortunately, there is little community education beyond the acequias and few seek to understand how all things are connected.
The folks in Taos Valley who rely solely on groundwater are fairly numerous (much of the agriculture of the valley is based solely on surface water). And the water is virtually free for many who are on wells - so much for the commodification of water - costing just the pennies that are required to pay for the electricity that powers the pump to retrieve the water. So far that hasn’t destroyed Taos or its surface waters. The depth to water here isn’t that far (that’s a good thing….drilling deep wells is hard, dangerous, and expensive). The human population is growing but, unlike the prairie dog population, hasn’t exploded….yet. Taoseños have an ethic of water conservation. Many know about water because their ancestors require them to know that water is life. No water? No life. But what about newcomers? What do they know? And how are they educated? How many folks can live here and rely on groundwater and, much more importantly for all living things, how many people can live here, rely on groundwater, and ensure the creeks, rivers, and acequias continue to flow?
Lawn? Or river? All things are connected.
So the groundwater is ok for the moment. Here at the house on the mesa, the wells pump the groundwater day in and day out. Reliably, predictably. The owners of the homes on the mesa share their wells which, unlike the acequia, doesn’t necessarily mean there is an expert keeping an eye on the “reservoir” deep under the ground on a daily, monthly or even annual basis...rather everyone seems to use to their hearts’ content and rather than pay a water bill, they share the electricity bill. Users of the wells out here, don’t tend to see gallons or acre feet that they have consumed. Rather they see how much power it took to bring the water predictably, reliably to the faucet. But that electricity bill is a mirage - making it seem that water is limitless by obscuring the crucial information about the health of the aquifer underground. The kilowatts consumed tell only a tiny part of the story. They leave out the parts of the story that matter most - how much water is being used, how little is left, how far the water table is dropping….how precarious the life of the Rio Hondo and the Rio Grande really is.
The heat of the day starts to abate, and Chinle is begging to head to the river. We pile her in the truck and grab “toy” and drive to the canyon. The river is low this year which for Chinle means plenty of beaches that are easy on the paws. As we throw the toy over and over and over, my mind wanders to the groundwater on the mesa 10 miles away. Its vitality, its necessity, its invisibility. The water Chinle splashes in is the water on the mesa, and the water on the mountain. It is the water on my field, and the water on the Taoseño’s corn. All things are connected.
My thinking is interrupted by a young couple with a cooler making their way down to “our” beach. The man has more tattoos than skin and the gal is wearing 3 different colors of fatigue. We smile and greet each. No masks here. “We’ve been fishing since midnight,” explains the man. “We caught 15 catfish!” the woman pronounces, “So we got our limit!” You can tell how happy she is. I thought to myself here are some folks who know what the limit is. Google “catfish limit New Mexico” and what pops up is immediate and easy to see...15/day. Google “groundwater pumping limit New Mexico” and there is, quite literally, no information. And that’s because there is no real limit. In (too?) many places in New Mexico and elsewhere in the desert Southwest, no regulatory entity is paying attention to the individual groundwater user’s use. The water flows out of the ground, into the faucet, down the drain. The gallons unaccounted for and unworried about. Out of sight. Out of mind. As the corn struggles, the forests parch, and the rivers disappear.
“The problem is,” says the man, “the catfish keep getting smaller, and it takes longer to catch them. Either I’m getting to be shittier at fishing or something is up with the river.” Something is definitely up with the river. “It’s flowing out of the faucets in the houses on the mesa,” I say to him. He just grunts. And, I think to myself, not enough people know....all things are connected.
The good news is that policy makers are slowly catching up since the early 1900s when groundwater was first being used in the state on any regular basis. Public entities are engaged in studies that measure how much groundwater there is and what might be a sustainable pumping rate. There are no new water rights being issued in the state (if you want water from something other than a municipal water company you have to buy the rights to it). This is all good news. But it isn't trickling down (forgive the terrible pun) to ordinary users. One has to care or know a lot already to make sense of the maze of regulations and even then it might not be clear for your circumstance. Additionally, these government agencies can have a tendency to put material wealth over the needs of ecosystems discounting, what Rob Nixon calls, the "spiritualized vernacular landscapes" that have permeated this region for thousands of years and "treating the landscape as if it were uninhabited by the living and the unborn."(3) As we move forward organizations, such as the Guardians of Taos Water, are forming to protect the water and to raise awareness that...all things are connected.(4) The Taos Pueblo Water Rights Settlement has some money available for consciousness raising and education.(5) Writer activists are doing their best to bring attention to the issue. Still, most folks don't know that groundwater is life. We aren't in dire straits yet. But at the moment, the "contemporary politics of speed" do not lend themselves to the slow methodical policy and education required to be sure that we are contemplative about our use and principles regarding water.
And maybe it's just because as Aldo Leopold once said, "we can be ethical only toward what we can see" that groundwater is so mysterious and so abused in so many places. As Chinle and I watch the slow current in the Rio Grande, I just hope collectively all who live in this valley and anywhere where water is scarce can choose to educate themselves and begin to see the invisible. The better we understand that there is something up with the river the better we can live as though water as life and all is connected.
This entry was inspired partly by my re-reading of Cadillac Desert (which is an old “Bible” about water in the US West and is almost solely concerned with surface water as a result. When Marc Reisner was writing in the early 1980s, the West was not yet profoundly overpopulated and rivers were the main concern for the future. How little he knew.). The entry is also inspired by my new reading of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (I will talk more about this in a future entry) - it is about a lot of things but most importantly it is about interconnectedness. Finally, the entry was inspired by countless hours trying to figure out how groundwater works in New Mexico both for my academic work and for my own life here. This research (reading every law, regional water planning document, and every resource on the web, and talking to my guru and to the owners of the house on the mesa) led to my need to sort through the complexity of it all. It is frustrating to say the least. You may sense that tone here a bit. There might be more information that I’ve not been able to ferret out - maybe I need a lawyer and maybe SOMEone is actually regulating the amount of water we use at the house on the mesa, but hell if I can find them. I can call my mayordomo at Toothacres and ask about the health of the acequia and the condition of the water. But groundwater? I can call, but apparently it’ll take at least 3 years for anyone to reply.
1) For a great explanation of acequias, see Ernesto Atencio's entry on the Taos Valley Acequia Association website: https://www.taosacequias.org/acequias.
2) To read the chapter of the state code that deals with access to water see: https://www.ose.state.nm.us/WR/WRrules.php.
3) Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 17.
4) See "Taos Water Protectors," https://www.taoswaterprotectors.org/.
5) There is a pile of legal decisions as tall as Taos mountain on water rights adjudication in New Mexico. I have not chosen to dive into what they all say because I am mostly interested in the ways in which "normal" folks who newly buy houses on the mesa in Taos or maybe anywhere in the groundwater dependent Southwest experience their access to water. I think that experience speaks to the invisibility of groundwater, both its ecological significance and its regulation (or lack thereof). If you want to read about the deeply complex legal, political, and ecological struggle regarding the doubling of groundwater pumping in this region, start here: https://www.taosnews.com/news/local-news/taos-water-protectors-protest-new-wells/article_3b82bef5-787d-5b67-b90f-38892c4da25a.html and go here https://www.taosnews.com/news/local-news/what-is-the-abeyta-settlement-why-should-i-care/article_ec21b072-c2e3-5294-a42c-17c4793f578c.html#:~:text=What%20is%20Abeyta%20Settlement%3F,establish%20who%20owns%20how%20much.
Leave a Reply.