Wednesday, May 14, 2014
How Green Was My Valley
Fifteen years ago I relieved stress by strolling along the banks of the rushing canals filled with water from the Rio Grande. In Southern New Mexico, no matter how hot the day is, the evenings are generally about 20 degrees cooler. When I finished work, I could go walking and hear the sound of the water. Residents of the whole community could be seen near the levies--children played along side the canals and splashed and swam in the often very unsanitary water. The smell of river water mixed with soil and chemical fertilizers filled the air with a distinctive, pungent perfume. As the summer went on, the smells of the crops--onions in the fields, alfalfa in bloom, and chilies, added their own touch to the warm, spicy fragrance of the valley. Ducks swam in pairs up and down the canals; shy water rats hid from view at the sound of human voices. The river banks and the canals that carried precious river water to the farmers' fields teemed with life--human, fowl and animal. The same river occasionally brought death--the canals were so filled with water and the currents so powerful that even strong swimmers occasionally drowned. There might be only a few constants in life, but the rushing water entering the gates of the canals and the odor of the river were among them.
My memories of the river--the heat, the wildlife, the smells---are so vivid that it is sad for me to see what it has become today. For the last few years, rather than a vibrant, rushing water source, we have had merely a dry riverbed. An observer would think that this river had been dry for decades. Yet it really only started a few years ago--when the federal government decided that water could not be released from the Rio Grande more than a few times a year because of drought conditions. Year after year we heard the same story--excessively warm winters left too little snow on the Colorado Rockies which did not sufficiently replenish the river, so the Elephant Butte Irrigation District could not release the water to the farmers. This led to the farmers putting down additional wells and pumping out the groundwater, just as it has in California. And just as it has in California, this pumping of groundwater has led to dropping water tables and water shortages. I was horrified to see a story last month about how the pumping of groundwater in California is actually causing the ground to drop 1 foot per year. I was particularly affected by the news that the sinking ground can actually prevent the underground aquifers from refilling. When I shared this story, my brother Chris, who is a year younger than I, commented on Facebook, "A lot of young people don't remember when our river had water in it."
Photo of the Rio Grande riverbed taken April 2014.
The area with the grass is the banks of the river. The sandy area is the bed.
At first, I was shocked, but over the weeks that followed I heard his comments echoed by other residents of the valley--the young people don't remember when the river bed was not just a dry bed with tire tracks in the middle. For them, there is no frustration with a government bureaucracy that is shutting off more and more access to water--they have no memories of a time when the water was plentiful.
For my part, I am amazed at the hypocrisy of an Administration that pretends to have unprecedented concern for the environment and yet takes so many actions that harm the environment. In diverting the river, the government has not only harmed the residents and the farmers; it has also harmed the wildlife that depended on the river for survival. And even though this past winter was extremely cold and much of the northern part of the country was blanketed with snow, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District announced in the spring that it would release water only once or twice through the irrigation season--forcing the farmers to continue to pump water from the river, dropping the water table and depriving small farmers and private residences of access to water for hours and sometimes days on end.
And the attacks on New Mexico's water are not limited to just those of us who have lived within walking distance of the river. My brother Chris frequently camps in the Gila Wilderness and the National Forests in Western and Southern New Mexico, respectively, where farmers and ranchers have traditionally allowed their cattle to drink from the abundant streams. But in the last few weeks, the U.S. Forest Service has set up gates in the Lincoln National Forest in Otero County locking out the cattle and forbidding access to the water. Their grounds for doing so are that cattle are a "non-native species" and they need to protect the streams. What nonsense! Nearly all domestic animals are "non-native" but essential nevertheless. Without water the cattle are dying. The Otero County Commissioners are siding with cattle ranchers and are trying to get a resolution passed to allow the Otero County sheriff's department to cut off the Forest Service's locks on the gates. Here's hoping they act quickly while there are cattle left to save. The ABC affiliate in El Paso covered this story last week and their coverage can be seen here.
What is happening to the valley, and the state, I once called home is a tragedy, but it is a tragedy that is being played out all over the western states as the federal government seizes control of water rights, through dams and gates and locks. Last month many of us watched in horror as the BLM sent snipers to Cliven Bundy's ranch to round up his cattle because of supposed unpaid grazing fees. Bundy's story made international news, but for every Cliven Bundy there are thousands more unseen citizens who are being forced to sell their property and quietly leave because they cannot access water. There are hundreds of ranchers who are being denied access to land and water they have traditionally used to sustain their livestock. The American West is being transformed before our eyes from a place of hope, prosperity and opportunity into a desperate dust bowl by an Administration bent on controlling its most precious resource--its water--at the expense of everyone and everything. And we who are watching are powerless to stop the destruction of what was once some of the most desirable land in our nation. The green valleys of the west are soon to be lost except in the memories of the people of my generation, who will occasionally close our eyes and recall the sights and sounds of the river.
Alexandra Swann is the author of No Regrets: How Homeschooling Earned me a Master's Degree at Age Sixteen and several other books. Her novel, The Planner, about an out of control, environmentally-driven federal government implementing Agenda 21, is available on Kindle and in paperback. For more information, visit her website at http://www.frontier2000.net.