With feet planted in a morass of sand, overhead vision blocked by a blanket of blue and only theoretical understanding that we were being recorded, perspective was elusive. We had risen before 10 am to make our way—by bus, by bike, by foot and by carpool—to the San Ysidro Crossing. Ideally, Flash Flood for a Living River would be more than a blip of blue on a satellite screen, and become a community art action that made social, political and environmental waves.

The Nov. 20 event was one of 16 large-scale environmental art projects held worldwide to send a message to leaders heading to the Nov. 29-Dec. 10

in Cancún. All the actions were documented from space by satellite (in Santa Fe, video and photos also were taken from helicopter and crane).

Santa Fe owes its participation to its frequent sunshine and mighty community initiative, and was one of only four American cities included (Austin, Texas; New York, NY; and Los Angeles, Calif., were the other three).

Holding up blue tarps and painted, recycled cardboard, Santa Fe’s community members stood in the riverbed and turned it from a sandy brown (unpainted sides of cardboard) to blankets of blue in a coordinated—for the most part—simulation of a river.

From space, a splash of blue snaked its way around a river bend, nearly constituting an “S” of azul on the Santa Fe River’s sandy length. The result was visually striking, a bout of color in washed-out desert. Ironically, the river looked very strange in the place where it’s supposed to be.

Sponsored by

, the

, SFR and numerous community organizations, Flash Flood did not ultimately turn out to be a “flood,” but it was more than the sputtering Santa Fe Trickle.

The project engendered a flurry of Facebook fallout and TweetDeck twitterings,

downtown, abundant blue swag, heavy media coverage and words on everyone’s lips.

But was it meaningful?

Environmental art projects always risk being self-congratulatory—and, worse, ineffectual. The mark of a successful art action isn’t just a pretty picture, but real-world change.

In the case of Flash Flood, the project aimed to draw attention to the Santa Fe River, which—now dry save scattered pools—provides 40 percent of Santa Fe’s water. The river’s existence is tied to that of the city. Named 2007’s most endangered river in the US by the American Rivers group, the life blood that first drew a population here is in danger.

Santa Fe’s project was one of the more directed, localized and elegant (or, at least, that’s how it felt from within the riverbanks). In Delta del Ebro, Spain, participants erected a

to draw attention to the area’s myriad environmental vexations; in Mexico City, 3,000 schoolkids formed a

to show how global warming threatens Mexico’s coastal states.

Here, aerial estimates placed 1,200 to 1,500 people in the Santa Fe River bed, according to Santa Fe Art Institute Public Relations Director Michelle LaFlamme-Childs. Organizers had hoped for 3,000. More people would have meant a more substantial “river” and a more powerful visual impact—and perhaps a larger political impact as well.

At the very least, this project encouraged a community conversation about the issue.

And the satellite photo, in which art and community stand out amid the tawny desert landscape, sure looks cool.