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NAVAJO-RESERVATION-Photo-EPA
Rising global temperatures have created unstable dune fields that lead to chronic, large-scale dust storms in the Navajo Nation.

First Person

EcoSystemic Policy

January 18, 2012, 12:00 am

Climate change affects everyone, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve driven through a handful of dust storms that made me feel, even just momentarily, that I wouldn’t find a safe way out of the darkness and stinging grit. Even inside the vehicle, it was hard not to hold my breath. 


Driving through Colorado’s Paradox Valley almost three years ago, I tried to see through a windshield splattered with dollops of brownish-red mud. (Dust had turned falling raindrops to mud.) Dust storms were a regular occurrence in western Colorado that spring, and the snows atop the West Elk Mountains were tinged red. When the snow melted, the rivers ran red, too. Grit was everywhere; dusting the furniture seemed more futile than usual. The sand, the mud: It all seemed inconvenient, unattractive.


During more than a decade working as manager of the Navajo Nation Water Management Branch, John Leeper saw his share of dust storms. And on the reservation, the storms are much more than inconvenient. 


Average global temperatures are rising—2 degrees Fahrenheit within the past 50 years—and temperatures have risen even higher on the Navajo Nation, which spreads across 17 million acres in the Four Corners. According to the US Geological Survey, average temperatures in Chinle, Ariz. are about 4 degrees warmer than they were in the 1960s. Together with drought, rising temperatures have conspired to kill the native vegetation holding the soil in place. That has created large unstable dune fields on the reservation, a phenomenon that the USGS’ Margaret Hiza Redsteer has been studying for the past decade.    


Larger dune fields mean bigger dust storms. “People have had to move from their homes because they cannot access their homesites anymore,” Leeper says. “They don’t have the heavy equipment to get to their homes.” Some communities, such as Dilkon, Ariz., have been hit particularly hard, but the problem is widespread across the reservation. 


Dust storms are nothing new, but they have become chronic, Leeper says. That’s a serious problem—and not only for the Diné.


When storms rip topsoil from the Four Corners and deposit it on Colorado’s mountaintops, the sand absorbs sunlight and accelerates snowmelt. Earlier snowmelt affects downstream irrigators, as well as the water systems and users that must compensate for the lack of snowmelt in rivers during the growing season. 


Flashing a map, Leeper points out that the Navajo Nation is in the center of the Colorado River Basin, from which Santa Fe gets a portion of its water supply. Dust from the reservation also reaches the Santa Fe Basin itself. “We need to think about the connections,” Leeper says. “People in Dilkon and Santa Fe have more in common than they think they do.” 


In recent years, the city of Santa Fe has cut its water consumption and continues to explore even more conservation strategies, ranging from ecosystem protection to wastewater reuse. Now, the city needs to look even beyond its own watershed.


In a healthy ecosystem, water, energy, bacteria, plants, fish, insects, sunlight and sands all interact with one another. When one thing changes—when the water flow within a stream decreases or a new fish species enters the system—all other components shift and adjust. 


Communities are accustomed to thinking of themselves as isolated from one another. (That becomes especially clear during the legislative session, when everyone scrambles for capital outlay dollars to bring home.) But the entire Southwest is an ecosystem, even if its residents don’t typically think of it that way.


That’s just one reason state legislators must rely upon the scientists and employees within an agency such as the New Mexico Environmental Department. Despite the anti-environmental policies of the Gov. Susana Martinez administration, individual employees within the agency possess expertise and institutional memory. 


But during last year’s legislative session, NMED Deputy Cabinet Secretary Raj Solomon prevented employees from responding to legislators without his written approval. In a Jan. 26, 2011 email exchange obtained by SFR through a public information request, Solomon informed an NMED employee that she was not allowed to attend committee meetings or testify, nor have contact with Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, with whom she had been working for three years to pass a bill that would require dental offices in New Mexico to reduce the amount of mercury they were contributing to the environment. 


Solomon is gone—and hopefully, his policy is, too. As political fish come and go, other components within the ecosystem that is New Mexico shift and adjust, as well. But New Mexico’s environmental issues are too big to be ignored and too important to be politicized. As the dust itself proves, we’re all in this together.

 

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