New Mexico’s unforgiving climate and geography have made it a perpetual challenge for human inhabitants. For thousands of years, New Mexicans have been facing the same problem: never enough water. In prehistoric times, farming in the river valley was relatively easy, if subject to erratic flooding, but at higher elevations, mountain streams had to be channeled into irrigation ditches. This system was perfected by the Spanish settlers, who called their ditches acequias, a word they’d learned from the Arabs (al-saqiya), who used the system to cultivate the Iberian Peninsula.
But now, as an ever-growing population demands more amenities, the traditional ways of managing water have given way to more complex legal wranglings and general hostility (“No chingen con nuestra agua”—don’t f—k with our water—reads a license plate on some farmers’ trucks in northern New Mexico). Some 49 billion gallons of water are pumped out of the middle Rio Grande aquifer every year, and only a part of that is replenished through mountain runoff. Albuquerque was set to start using filteRed River water by early 2009, but some areas are already on chronic alert. Santa Fe, for instance, already has the lowest per-capita water use in the country, and it doesn’t have any more resources to tap. “Smart growth” gets lip service in city council meetings, and neo-homesteaders on the fringes are installing cisterns to catch rain and systems to reuse gray water, but construction continues apace on Albuquerque’s arid West Mesa.
Another result of northern New Mexico’s dry climate is that years of relative drought have made tinderboxes of the forests. In 2000, the National Forest Service started a “controlled burn” (a hotly debated strategy for thinning invasive undergrowth in choked woodlands) that got very out of control and nearly destroyed the town of Los Alamos, along with 45,000 acres of trees. It was the largest wildfire ever in New Mexico, and the smoke and flames could be seen in Albuquerque. The mountain behind Los Alamos is still bald and brown, spiked with burnt tree trunks. Pecos Wilderness Area, too, suffered from fire in 2000 and is still recovering.
Visitors to New Mexico can help the picture by following local environmental policies—complying with campfire bans in the wilderness, for instance, and keeping showers short. Golfers may want to consider curtailing their play here. New courses are springing up everywhere, especially as part of casino resort complexes on American Indian reservations, and most are intense draws on the water table, with little thought to sustainability (one exception is Santa Fe’s municipal course, which was planned with water restrictions in mind).
© Zora O'Neill from Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque, 2nd edition