In 1996, with a gold Honda hatchback full of books and camping gear, I moved to New Mexico. That summer was my first working as an archaeologist, and afternoon rainstorms frequently interrupted our fieldwork near Coyote Canyon on the Navajo Nation. My boss at the time joked that I’d brought the rain with me from Virginia. I took for granted the storms that summer, and the next few summers after that.
Obviously, I am not a native of New Mexico. I don’t farm, and with my fieldwork days behind me, I don’t otherwise work on the land. My ancestors didn’t live here and mine are not deep, historical connections to the landscape.
But over the past 16 years, I’ve still managed to notice a few changes. The Rio Grande dries more often. Drought and bark beetles have conspired to kill off many conifer forests. Summertime forest fires are bigger.
Having witnessed just these few changes within less than two decades, I was excited to attend the 57th annual New Mexico Water Conference, which, this year, was titled “Hard Choices: Adapting Policy and Management to Water Scarcity.”
Water scarcity? Check. This summer, much of the state experienced “extreme drought” and stretches of New Mexico’s two largest rivers—the Rio Grande and the Pecos River—had run dry.
Even the drive to Las Cruces offered a lesson in adapting to water scarcity. At the end of August, the Rio Grande through Albuquerque was barely a trickle (and the city had to stop drawing water from the river for its drinking water project), the view of Elephant Butte Reservoir was relatively sandy, and pale green plants carpeted the muddy northern stretch of Caballo Reservoir.
At New Mexico State University, the conference was packed; panelists offered insight into issues like climate change projections for the Rio Grande, the impact of water scarcity on acequias, environmental protection and river restoration.
Then, in the afternoon, Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, hosted a discussion, titled “Straight Talk,” among four former New Mexico state engineers. (The Office of the State Engineer oversees the state’s water resources.) Udall had invited John Hernandez, Eluid Martinez, Tom Turney and John D’Antonio to the conference as “truth tellers,” he said.
But it was clear after only a few moments that there would be no “straight talk” about New Mexico’s warmer, drier future. With the exception of Turney’s allusion to climate change and precipitation data, the conversation among the four engineers could have taken place in the 1990s, or perhaps even the 1960s.
D’Antonio, for instance, posed the question, “Where is the next visionary?” For a moment, I wondered if the conversation was headed in a new direction. When he referred to the San Juan-Chama project, my hopes fizzled.
Envisioned in the 1930s, that project pipes water from the San Juan River through diversions and tunnels into the Chama River and then the Rio Grande. A number of cities, including Santa Fe, have rights to that water.
Despite the fact that Albuquerque had just shut down its San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project because of low river flows, D’Antonio pointed out that the project provides water from a renewable source and takes pressure off groundwater supplies.
The San Juan Chama Project is undoubtedly an amazing feat of engineering, planning and water rights wrangling. It’s also typical of 20th-century water management in New Mexico, which relies heavily on infrastructure—diversions, dams and reservoirs—paid for by the federal government.
And it’s not entirely clear that the federal government will continue water business as usual in the West. During his address, Michael Connor, commissioner of the US Bureau of Reclamation—which built most of the big water projects in the state—explained that water storage in reservoirs on the Rio Grande has plummeted.(Warmer temperatures mean more water evaporates from reservoirs. Also, when it’s warm, plants suck up more water—whether it’s cottonwoods in the bosque, alfalfa in the field or peonies in the yard.) Connor also spoke of decreasing groundwater supplies, population pressures and climate change. His talk was short on solutions, but at least he acknowledged the problems.
On the drive back from Las Cruces that night, I thought about how in the late ’90s, I worked on an archaeological crew that surveyed that stretch of desert along the Rio Grande between Truth or Consequences and Socorro. Wherever I worked in New Mexico, I fantasized about the lives of the people whose potsherds and flaked stones we spotted. What measures did they take to survive and thrive in an arid landscape? And how did they envision the future?
Those years surveying and excavating—also, scanning for water and wondering about food sources—taught me about New Mexico’s past. But they also affected how I think about sustainability and the future. Driving past twilight into darkness, when the creosote-covered rills were no longer visible out of the window, I continued to mull over D’Antonio’s question: Where are the visionaries?
Click to watch an archived webcast of New Mexico’s 57th annual water conference.