“The American West has a drinking problem,” writes Pete Zrioka. It is impossible to ignore water here. We watch the skies anxiously in an ever-expanding drought, and we ponder each conflicting report from developers and hydrologists. As climate change settles in, “the Southwest comes out as one of the big losers,” writes [William] deBuys, citing computer models indicating that by the mid twenty-first century, the region will have a fifth less available water than during the previous century, droughts included. We live in an “orphaned land” as V.B. Price puts in his comprehensive book on New Mexico’s environment.

Deep wells and mountain runoff are among the significant pits and erections of the New West. Wars over land here have always been wars over water, as desert land without water is “useless.” Two old western sayings sum up the ongoing situation: “Whiskey is for drinkin’, water is for fightin,’” and “Water runs uphill toward money.” According to the EPA, 40 percent of the headwaters of western watersheds have been polluted by mining. Now these adages are applicable all over the globe, where available fresh water is less than 3 percent of the planet’s water.

Average annual rainfall in New Mexico over the last two thousand years is 14.5 inches; in most areas, 2012 clocked less. After the last devastating long-term drought in the 1950s, the state had a welcome but dangerous thirty-year “wet” spell, then returned to normal, which is potential drought with no letup in sight. In 1956, when the Rio Grande dried up before reaching the Elephant Butte reservoir and ranching was devastated, rainfall was above the two hundred-year average. Yet population continues to grow, and the powers that be continue to permit irresponsible expansion. In 2002, New Mexico’s water-cooled power plants each used 52 million gallons a year; fifteen new plants are imminent. How much fossil water is left underground? One thing is sure: sooner or later it’s not going to be enough.

Most of New Mexico’s water is stored in dynamic and variable aquifers below the surface, occupying small spaces between grains of sand or gravel and small cracks or fractures in the rock – notoriously difficult to chart. Groundwater is not wholly non-renewable like a mineral deposit, but it is not reliably renewable like scarce surface water. Most water that hits the ground is used up by plants and evaporation before it gets to the aquifers. Alluvial aquifers (like our Galisteo creek) lie in sand or gravel; other categories lie in other kinds of rocks – sandstone, limestone, etc. In unconfined aquifers, recharged by rain to some extent, the level of water is the level of the aquifer; in confined aquifers, like those in shales, not much water gets through.

The ankle-deep Rio Galisteo (which would barely pass for a creek in better watered regions) accumulates agricultural runoff in its short journey from the Sangre de Christo Mountains to the Rio Grande, where it joins the waters committed to several states in two countries, the U.S. and Mexico. Downstream from Los Alamos, the Rio Grande is threatened by decades of sloppy nuclear waste burial. Sandia National Laboratories, which operated a nuclear weapons dump from 1959-88, “is estimated to contain 1.5 million cubic feet of radioactive and hazardous wastes disposed in unlined pits and trenches.” In late 2012, authorities triumphantly announced that they may have found the edge of the plume originating there that is threatening Albuquerque’s drinking water aquifer. In 2013 they announced that a jet fuel line leak from Kirtland Air Force Base (rumored to be twice the size of the Exxon Valdez spill) has not (yet?) reached the city’s water supply.

Given another saying – aqua es vida (water is life) – it makes sense that the tanks of our village’s Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association stand right between our two cemeteries. For close to a century, Galisteo farmers depended on acequias (Arabic for irrigation ditches) brought to northern New Mexico by the Spanish in the late sixteenth century, though the indigenous Hohokam of the Phoenix Basin had built an extraordinary ditch and canal system a millennium earlier. Over centuries of Native and Hispano culture, the acequia has represented communal endeavor. The large scale “American” ditches of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, like the Aztec and Inca ditches in northwestern New Mexico, were commercial schemes that sometimes paid off and sometimes didn’t. But the little ditches in the precarious valleys of the Southwest, dug by the Spanish/Mexicans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (a few wooden flumes still exist) made life possible. Galisteo’s ditches were left high and dry when erosion – resulting from over-grazing, deforestation, railroad construction, and, some say, the eruption of Krakatoa halfway across the world – cut the creek 20 feet down into the arroyo, ending access and any future for farming in the village.

"Book of Drought: A Water Memory, " by Basia  Irland

“Book of Drought: A Water Memory, ” by Basia Irland

Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Associations are ubiquitous small independent community systems with a fixed number of water rights (Galisteo has 42.56 acre-feet annually; an acre-foot is roughly 326,000 gallons). This number does not change when communities grow, although the state is required to allow anyone not hooked up to the current system to dig a private well using up to (and often more than) a quarter acre-foot annually. (I waited for almost eighteen years to hook up to the system, hauling water after my well went bad.) Few rural settlements in New Mexico have community sewers, and the dangers posed by makeshift septic tanks to clean water systems are becoming obvious. (When one old adobe home in Santa Fe was being tarted up, the septic tank was found to be a rusted Chevy chassis.)

Among the greatest changes – and indicative of how the old acequia culture is giving way to modernity – is the younger generation’s proposal that those with more water rights have more votes, instead of the traditions one vote, one parciante (member). Even that democratic holdover, still employed by many acequias, has often succumbed to the use of proxies from family members still listed on deeds but no longer living on their land. When bonds to family, neighbors, and acequias weaken, outside forces can step in and take advantage of divided loyalties. Water rights become simply private property rights, contradicting “the very concept of water as a community resource,” writes Kay Matthews, fearless editor of La Jicarita, who lives in El Valle, a village to the north that is smaller and more isolated that Galisteo and still maintains some agriculture and three acequias. She has dared to expose “what we don’t talk about. … How the internecine bickering and demographic changes within this community are just as big a threat to acequia vitality as is the transfer of agricultural water to what the powers that be define as the ‘highest and best’ uses: urban, industrial, and recreational.”

Water prices range from $12,000 per acre foot in some areas to $30,000 in other more desperate places. Surface water is prioritized over aquifer water (which requires more treatment). “Paper” water rights parallel “wet” water rights in labyrinthine legal squabbles that can last decades. Today, corporate forces are buying up small agricultural water rights to send to metropolitan centers, endangering river ecosystems, forcibly fallowing small farms, and diminishing local food production. This, in turn, cranks up the amount of energy expended and exacerbates climate change. In early 2012 a New York-based company applied to pump billions of gallons of groundwater from a ranch near Magdalena in southwestern New Mexico to make it available to the cities. It was the largest amount of water ever sought by a private entity — about twice what the city of Santa Fe currently uses in a year – and the application was totally speculative, intended for no specific project. Enraged locals protested, and eventually, to a statewide sigh of relief, a newly appointed State Engineer turned down the request. This does not mean we have heard the last of it.

Elephant Butte Reservoir in south central New Mexico is the state’s largest body of water. The dam was built in the early 1990s for flood control, irrigation, and water distribution. It has been described as the “Rio Grande bank account for Colorado, NM, Texas and Mexico … the place where their water debits and credits are counted” and the place where the buck stops in the midst of our periodic droughts., rising population, agricultural demands, and unstable climate. Were it not for the Buckman Direct Diversion (BDD) into the Rio Grande, tunneled through mountains from the San Juan and Chama Rivers to the west, northern New Mexico would already be in trouble; it provides some 50 percent of our water, more than twice as much as the sinking reservoirs. In December 2012 it was announced that if the drought continues, the water received from the San Juan Chama by the Middle Rio Grande Water District may be cut by 20 percent. The cities will survive on storage for the time being, but farmers may have to cut their growing season by one week, and many small towns will also suffer. Even the astounding rains and devastating floods of September 2013 did not solve these problems.

The U.S. and Mexico have agreed on a five-year pilot project to update the Colorado Water Compact so it is more equitable, more efficient, more conservation-oriented, and to restore the badly damaged Colorado River Delta. The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission is in the process of updating the State Water Plan (covering sixteen water planning regions and twelve major river and groundwater basins) for the first time since 2003, and about time. But statewide planning, involving rivers that flow from one water district or county to another, one state to another, and one country to another via national and international water compacts, is a complex challenge. Mexican and Texan farmers are already fighting over water from the Rio Grande and Pecos Rivers. And as usual, Native water rights are even more precarious. Few Indian treaties deal with water in dependable legal terms, but in August 2013, the Navajo Nation was awarded enough water form the San Juan River to irrigate 40,000 acres of farmland, which was less than anticipated; its claims on the Colorado River could amount to more than 10 percent of the river’s flow.

The Santa Fe River, running through the city, has been mostly dry for decades. Even during a recent year of dire drought, popular legislation was passed to release a paltry 1,000 acre-feet, in “pulses,” to being the restoration process. A “living” river is recommended not only for the ecosystem, quality of life, and survival of wildlife, but as an asset to tourism, always a consideration in the Land of Enchantment. While domestic rainwater harvesting seems to be a sensible decision, in some western states it is discouraged or even illegal because it swallows a large enough proportion of runoff to affect interstate and international compacts; eco-aware homeowners have actually been arrested. In parts of New Mexico, harvesting is encouraged. During peak summertime water use in Santa Fe, 44 percent of its water goes to landscaping, although the city is something of a role model, using only 105 gallons per capita per day – one of the lowest rates in the country (Phoenix uses circa 185 Los Angeles, 123). To avoid dry mouths, it is estimated that we will have to get down to 85 gallons per capita by 2045.

Excerpted from Lucy R. Lippard, Undermining: A Wild Ride through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West. New York: The New Press, 2014, 152-163.

Readings from this excerpt:

William deBuys, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

V.B. Price, The Orphaned Land: New Mexico’s Environment Since the Manhattan Project. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011.

A POSTSCRIPT FROM LUCY R. LIPPARD ON 10 JANUARY 2016: “Climate change (or climate chaos) is being kind to us for the time being and this past wet year (2015) we received 137% of normal moisture! Go figure….

Lucy R. Lippard is an internationally known writer, activist, and curator. She has authored twenty-two books, has curated more than fifty major exhibitions, and holds nine honorary degrees. Lippard is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts grants. She lives in New Mexico.

Basia Irland is an author, poet, sculptor, installation artist and activist who creates international water projects, many of which are featured in her book, Water Library (University of New Mexico Press, 2007). The book focuses on projects the artist has created across three decades in Africa, Canada, Europe, South America, Southeast Asia and the United States. Through her work, Irland offers a creative understanding of water while examining how communities of people, plants and animals rely on this vital element. Irland is Professor Emerita, Department of Art and Art History, University of New Mexico, where she established the Arts and Ecology Program. The image above is a still from Book of Drought: A Water Memory, a 2009 video, currently traveling with Water, Water Everywhere: Paean to a Vanishing Resource.