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.
Blue Winding, Blue Way
Celebrating the Santa Fe River Watershed
It is thought by some scholars that four hundred years ago, La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís, was laid out geo-mythically by Tlascalan Indians who had accompanied Juan de Oñate northward from Zacatecas. These Mexican Indians had an understanding of the appropriate way to physically craft a community within the context of surrounding habitat. Mountains lie to the east, water is present in relative abundance, the westerly sun showers its light, life is nurtured, the landscape is spiritually revered, the spirit of place is honored. Thus Santa Fe was born and has lingered long and in beauty.
Indeed the Santa Fe River has been the aquatic lifeline of not just the human community, but also the surrounding biotic community within the geophysical cradle that provides the structural cohesion of this watershed. The myriad life forms, most of which are not visible to the naked eye, collectively generate an élan that is felt throughout the watershed by all living creatures whose sensitivities are honed in favor of survival.
The great Russian geographer/philosopher Pyotr Kropotkin contended that evolution of species owes far more to mutual cooperation than mutual antagonism.
He favored political decentralization as the most just and intelligent way for the human species to comport itself. Subsequent to Kropotkin, the bioregional movement stirred within our species as a means of comporting ourselves favorably within our respective ecosystems. It may be difficult for an individual human to envision the home bioregion, but one can readily identify the home watershed with only modest effort. The Santa Fe River watershed is tiny relative to the Rio Grande watershed of which it is part, yet it is vitally important both to itself and to the greater biogeographic continuum. Biogeography, the study of plant and animal communities over space and time, is a most splendid field of science. It has been known to lead the practitioner into a state of consciousness that is utterly appropriate for our time on the planet.
We are presently dominated by an erroneous economic paradigm that favors money far beyond intrinsic worth. We see turning habitat into money as the fundament of fiscal wisdom. We have long since secularized habitat, landscape, and waterways in a way that is a horrendous affront to the sensibilities of our Puebloan neighbors who have successfully survived in small autonomous communities wherein the seasonal cycles are celebrated in great ceremonials that honor the spirit of place. They have much to teach us about attitude.
If we can come to regard ourselves as members of the biotic community privileged to inhabit the Santa Fe River watershed, to perceive it as homeland wherein we become utterly familiar with its biotic and geophysical characteristics, to understand intuitively the elements of its own story, to become truly conscious of the ramifications of our human presence and act accordingly on behalf of the greatest good, our homeland may yet survive the juggernaut of factors that threaten so much of our planetary ecosystem. In my opinion, we must nurture a collective spiritual connection to homeland. To again cite Aldo Leopold, "Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land."
El Agua de Mi Abuelo
When I think about waterways or about the Santa Fe River, I think about the people that used to know the river like I have gotten to know the acequia outside my window. There are probably people that still remember. I have met people like them. People like Louie from Tesuque, who knows the original Tewa names of the mountains and watershed that feed the Santa Fe River, who knows the old ways of using the land as a sponge. I think of people like Victor from Questa, who makes his living from his farm that is 7500 feet in elevation and only a few miles south of the Colorado border. Victor cries when he talks about water because he knows that he is talking about God, about that which sustains his way of life. I think of all the people who understand the tricks of properly irrigating with an acequia, how to be intimate with the water and get it to go where you want it, those who truly know that irrigating this way is an art form. I think about the bendiciones (blessings) that are said at the beginning of every season, out in the fields and over the acequias, honoring the sacredness of the water and the land.
When I think about the Santa Fe River, I think about my grandfather Cipriano Trujillo of Chimayó, whose land we inherited and plant today. My grandfather, whose upbringing was so hard that he couldn't imagine tending the fields willingly and without the need for survival, did not pass his knowledge directly to us. The intimacy he had with the land and the water is something that my brothers and I have had to relearn after years of living and working in the city, of pot smoking, partying, and buying our food from stores. After years of disconnect, we seek to find ourselves again, my brothers and I. We find ourselves living in Chimayó. And together we are working the farm. At first we take advice from anybody who's willing to dispense it. There are a lot of people who have an idea of what farming is about. We hire a nice boy from Vermont, Daniel, who lives with us and has an extended knowledge of organic farming—in Vermont. He struggles with the challenge of growing food at 6500 feet with little water, and we struggle with conveying to him the things about farming that we seem to inherently know. Daniel has a hard time believing us when we tell him that the native chile doesn't need to be irrigated every day. He thinks it's dying or suffering, but we know, somehow, that it loves the heat, loves the challenge of surviving and thriving in this climate. We are proud of ourselves, looking at our calloused hands at the end of the day, acknowledging the information that we are regaining. I like the idea that our hands are able to remember the work. Can you imagine what it would mean for the city of Santa Fe to regain this information as well? If you ask the right people, I'm sure you can still hear the stories around the Santa Fe River, learn the same lessons I'm learning in Chimayó.
Can you imagine having a living river that feeds dozens of acequias, instead of just a handful of parciantes (acequia irrigators) on the Acequia Madre? If you drive down Agua Fria or West Alameda, the fields are still there, quietly waiting. They hold horses now, or a mobile home here and there, but can you imagine instead you see gorgeous irrigated fields of alfalfa or corn or chile? You see youth learning how to flood irrigate with their neighbor or grandpa. You see beautiful, large cottonwoods dotting the riverbank and owls, hawks and squirrels all making their homes in the trees. You see families and neighbors helping each other with planting or harvesting. You see chile ristras hanging outside of porches not for decoration, but because the people grew that chile and are intending to eat it once it dries. You see children running happily through the bosque, finding frogs and salamanders and getting their feet wet in the soggy riverbed. You see a community coming together, planting, weeding, harvesting.
This traditional knowledge is not completely lost, but rather displaced by sidewalks and pavement, businesses and bigger homes. But it is still there; we still have a chance to bring it back. Imagine waking up most days to the sound of water running right outside your window.
The Unnamable River
Is it in the anthracite face of a coal miner,
crystallized in the veins and lungs of a steel
worker, pulverized in the grimy hands of a railroad engineer?
Is it in a child naming a star, coconuts washing
ashore, dormant in a volcano along the Rio Grande?
You can travel the four thousand miles of the Nile
to its source and never find it.
You can climb the five highest peaks of the Himalayas
and never recognize it.
You can gaze through the largest telescope
and never see it.
But it's in the capillaries of your lungs.
It's in the space as you slice open a lemon.
It's in a corpse burning on the Ganges,
in rain splashing on banana leaves.
Perhaps you have to know you are about to die
to hunger for it. Perhaps you have to go
alone into the jungle armed with a spear
to truly see it. Perhaps you have to
have pneumonia to sense its crush.
But it's also in the scissor hands of a clock.
It's in the precessing motion of a top
when a torque makes the axis of rotation describe a cone:
and the cone spinning on a point gathers
past, present, future.
In a crude theory of perception, the apple you
see is supposed to be a copy of the actual apple,
but who can step out of his body to compare the two?
Who can step out of his life and feel
the Milky Way flow out of his hands?
An unpicked apple dies on a branch;
that is all we know of it.
It turns black and hard, a corpse on the Ganges.
Then go ahead and map out three thousand miles of the Yangtze;
walk each inch, feel its surge and
flow as you feel the surge and flow in your own body.
And the spinning cone of a precessing top
is a form of existence that gathers and spins death and life into one.
It is in the duration of words, but beyond words—
river river river, river river.
The coal miner may not know he has it.
The steel worker may not know he has it.
The railroad engineer may not know he has it.
But it is there. It is in the smell
of an avocado blossom, and in the true passion of a kiss.
An Ecologist’s Perspective
This early exposure to the aquatic natural world eventually led me to university teaching and research where I extolled the attributes of aquatic systems and the need for healthy rivers and watersheds in our lives. I exposed students to environmental ethics and encouraged them to pursue careers in environmental science. My professional career continues as a research biologist investigating the interconnectedness of the physical, chemical, and biological processes of freshwater ecosystems. I still look at flowing waters with wonder knowing they are extremely complex systems but can be enjoyed and appreciated without involving the details.
A living river is one which has an environmental flow satisfying all aspects of the riparian and instream biological community and is a constant reminder of the health of the watershed because activities upstream are manifest downstream. It contains a flow that provides water through time and space by mimicking the natural flow (hydrograph) and reflects the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the region. A river such as the Santa Fe River during pre-dam time may have been perennial some years and ephemeral others (with interrupted surface flow), but probably had reaches connected through sub-surface flow. Continuous perennial surface flows connected to the Rio Grande allowed native Rio Grande cutthroat trout and other fish to colonize upper reaches.
Presently in the high desert landscape of the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains, rivers that reach the Rio Grande are few due to the vagaries in the weather and the multiple demands of humans on the water supply. In small freeflowing reaches such as the upper Santa Fe River, the natural water year begins with high spring flushing flows due to the melting of snow that accumulated during the winter. This increased flow wets the edge of the stream, flooding riparian vegetation like cottonwoods, willows, and grasses, and providing water that infiltrates and is stored in the flood plain for eventual slow release back into the channel later in the year. Beaver dams further enhance the storage capacity of the flood plain. Higher flows give dimension and pattern to the stream and redefine the channel. Vegetative debris and sediments that accumulated the previous year are redistributed downstream and to the edges of the stream to build up the banks so that grasses and woody vegetation gain a stronghold to further buffer succeeding floods.
The increase in discharge and warming water temperature during the spring rejuvenate surface algae, diatoms, mosses, vascular plants, and biofilms. During this time, the emergence of many aquatic insects such as mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, midges, and crane flies is triggered. These organisms complete their life cycles as reproducing aerial adults that disperse along the watercourse to eventually deposit eggs in the water to begin a new generation. Some of these insects will become food for fish and for riparian birds, mammals, amphibians, and other insects attracted to the aquatic habitat and the riparian vegetation. An increase in spring stream flow is also a signal for spawning by salmonids such as the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, which utilize cleaned stream bottom gravels.
Discharge begins to taper off after a few weeks of spring runoff. Summer flows generally are more stable, but can be interrupted by occasional floods. Monsoon rains later in the summer may cause temporary increases in volume. Flow and temperature decrease in late fall as precipitation decreases. Leaves falling into the water accumulate to form the food base for many aquatic organisms sustaining them through the winter. Snow accrued in the winter eventually melts in the spring to begin the runoff cycle again.
In an urban setting such as Santa Fe, summer rain and subsequent flooding is usually short lived, dramatic, and often times devastating. The impervious and built upon watershed acts as a shield, allowing the water to rush downstream through the previously dry and poorly vegetated arroyos and river channel. It is only when rushing water reaches the Santa Fe River Rural Protection Zone (originally the Santa Fe River Preserve) several miles downstream (below the City of Santa Fe Waste Water Treatment Plant discharge) that the riparian vegetation and expansive flood plain function as a cushion, buffering the flow. Here, high flows are absorbed and diverted throughout the bosque to later appear, diminished but sustained, to augment flow to the river downstream. Today, this phenomenon does not occur along the dry Santa Fe River near the downstream city limits of Santa Fe.
Through rivers, a variety of ecological communities are connected by the flow from headwater to lower elevations. In Santa Fe County, diverse neighborhoods, each with specific and perhaps different relationships to the river, are also intertwined. For most of the year the Santa Fe River through town and downstream is a dry remnant of its former self, visited and enjoyed by only a few. One only has to look to the community events celebrating the river when it occasionally flows in spring and summer to see how running water is cherished and appreciated. The river blessing at San Ysidro Crossing in Aqua Fria and the fishing derby and river festival within Santa Fe are well attended. A year round living Santa Fe River could provide an environment for play and exploration of the outdoors, linking neighborhoods through parks and the river trail and providing sustenance to nature. Once a living Santa Fe River is re-established, I would like to be involved in ecological studies. I want to take friends old and new to the river to turn over a few stones to see signs of the return, and encourage continuation of the numerous school projects showing our young people various positive aspects of the river. I hope such experiences will spur others to be as fascinated as I have always been with the life found in a river.
Santa Fe Reporter