If it’s any season other than spring, take a walk at Frenchy’s Field and you’re liable to come across sand, endless stones and a grand arroyo choked with dust. Strolling downtown on a winter day, if you decide to cross from East Alameda Street to Canyon Road where there’s no footbridge in sight, you likely won’t have a problem hopping the trickle of water in the winding gully there. A lazy summertime drive may bring you to San Ysidro Crossing at Agua Fria, across a really big concrete drainage ditch.
Signs warning not to cross when the water’s running seem like overkill.
That a healthy mountain-fed waterway once thrived over those stones and across those low-lying roads is easy to forget. We live in a desert and dryness is a way of life, but the exceedingly arid conditions of the Santa Fe River are nowhere near natural.
The river that once fed endless acequias and helped farmers cultivate thriving acres over the centuries has been in trouble for a while now (the first dam was built upstream in 1881 and petitions from farmers whose acequias ran dry date back as early as 1886). But now, various conservation efforts and advocacy groups are finding the perfect chance to turn river restoration plans into action.
One of these efforts is The Return of the River, a formidable new collection of writing from Sunstone Press. Edited by Santa Fe resident A Kyce Bello, the book focuses on the Santa Fe River’s historical, social, environmental and spiritual effect on our city and its people.
Bello had the idea for the collection in 2007, the year in which the national nonprofit American Rivers named our namesake waterway the most endangered river in the United States. The book then swelled to include more than 50 pieces by historians, scholars, journalists, poets, activists and environmentalists. Its contents cover virtually every aspect of the river and its history—whether in an 1882 newspaper article from the Santa Fe New Mexican, a hopeful poem praying for the river’s revival (Lonnie Howard), a harrowing tale of adolescent exploration of drainage tunnels (Angelo Jaramillo) or an exhaustive historical chronicle of 400 years of river history (Tara M Plewa). By alternating academic writing with poetry and prose, the collection presents factual information and artistic musings simultaneously.
Bello sees the book as an attempt to take the river’s fight out of the realm of politics so that anyone in Santa Fe can see the importance of the struggle. Bringing the river back to life means reviving the river in the consciousness of Santa Fe, from its headwaters in the Sangre de Cristos to its shuffling exit from town in La Cienega.
The intensely local aspect of the book’s subject matter gives the collection extra oomph. The Santa Fe River flows only 42 miles, and the place where the river is in the most trouble is within Santa Fe city limits. City residents have had a huge impact on the river—Santa Feans have reduced their water consumption by an impressive 30 percent since 2001. The Santa Fe River Commission decided, as the result of meetings over the past three years, that it could dedicate 1,000 acre feet of water to the Santa Fe River once the Buckman Direct Diversion Project comes online in spring 2011. In December 2010, the Santa Fe Public Works Department started holding public meetings to determine how best to use the water. From input and additional recommendations provided by a working group of 14 citizens, SFRC decided to release the water in a hydrograph, or water-release pattern, designed to mimic spring snowmelt and provide a more or less constant flow of some water year-round through the river. The new plan, as of press time, was scheduled for a final evaluation by the commission this week, and will subsequently be voted on by the City Council before its projected implementation in the spring.
The pragmatic approach of river conservation is important, but a spiritual connection to the idea of a living river is just as vital. So while you conserve water, join the Santa Fe Watershed Association in calling your city councilors to urge them to do everything they can for the river, don’t forget to go see what you’re trying to save.
The same historic river upon which residents of this valley have depended for generations is on its way to having a new life. Rarely is a nearly extinct river presented with the unique opportunity to live again. But if any community of people is apt to rally about a cause as environmentally, socially and spiritually ripe as this, our community is the one.
This week, SFR presents just a few excerpts from Sunstone Press’ The Return of the River.