Writers on the Range: Megadrought, the new normal
Ryan Summerlin July 26, 2012
In a dirt parking lot near Many Farms, Ariz., a Navajo farmer sold me a mutton burrito. He hasn’t used his tractor in two years, he told me; he has to cook instead of farm because “there isn’t any water.” He pointed east at the Chuska Mountains, which straddle the New Mexico border. In a normal year, water coming off those mountains reaches his fields, he said. No more.
His experience might just be the new normal for the American Southwest, writes William deBuys in his book, A Great Aridness. It was published late last year, months after one of the Southwest’s driest summers in recorded history, during which fires of unprecedented size scorched hundreds of thousands of acres of forest. This summer is even worse; forest fires have already broken last year’s records. Springs, wells and irrigation ditches are bone-dry. Farms are withering. We’ve all heard the gloomy scenarios of global warming: extreme weather, drought, famine, the breakdown of society. My current perch in Placitas, N.M., feels like a front-row seat at the apocalypse.
Yet deBuys says we don’t really know if the current drought in the Southwest is a consequence of global warming. Periodic, decades-long droughts have been relatively common in the last few thousand years, according to analysis of dried lakebeds. Most of the area’s famously collapsed civilizations – Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, the Galisteo pueblos – are thought to have died out for lack of water in these extended dry periods, which deBuys calls “megadroughts.”
By contrast, the last century’s human population growth in the American Southwest occurred during a relatively wet period in the climactic record. We were due for another megadrought sooner or later, deBuys says, though climate change could make that dry event come sooner.
In the Sandia Mountains above Placitas, last winter’s snowpack was relatively high. But the spring runoff never came because the snow evaporated straight into the air during the hottest spring on record. Lynn Montgomery has been farming in Placitas for more than 40 years. Like many farmers in northern New Mexico, he irrigates his land with water from an acequia, a type of canal system implemented by Spaniards, who’d adopted the technique from the Moors. This year, for the second year in a row, Montgomery’s acequia has run dry. Last year, summer rains came in time to save his crops, but this year they haven’t come.
First to go were the young Italian prune trees. His more established pear trees were next. Now, his decades-old grape vines are dropping their fruit and clinging to their lives. The 30-year-old asparagus patch is toast, as are the perennial herbs, garlic and strawberries. Even the weeds are dead.
The farm was part of a thriving community in the 1960s and ’70s. Then people gradually left; Montgomery was the last man standing. He sold the farm to the local Pueblo Indian tribe, on the condition that they assume ownership after his death. He spent the proceeds paying lawyers to enforce water law around Placitas, managing to stop several developments that would have tapped the fragile aquifer.
Despite his successes, many wells were drilled, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, dropping the water table to the point at which many springs in Placitas began running dry, along with the acequias they feed. Montgomery’s neighbors, with the turn of a tap, can still water their grass and wash their cars, thanks to the wells that killed the spring that feeds his acequia. But it’s only a matter of time, he told me, until they feel his pain — literally.
Harold Trujillo is member of an acequia near Mora, N.M. All the acequias in his Sangre de Cristo mountain valley, near the headwaters of the Pecos River, are dry, he told me. Before this year, the worst he remembered was 2002, which, according to the Colorado state engineer’s office, was the region’s driest year in the last 300.
“In 2002, there were natural ponds that never dried up. Cows could drink out of them. Now those ponds are dry. People have been digging them deeper with backhoes to get them to fill with water,” Trujillo said. Tempers are also getting short. Trujillo said he was verbally threatened last weekend at Morphy Lake, the reservoir his acequia association helped build, by people wanting more water released now.
Meanwhile, Lynn Montgomery is retooling his farm. He’s installed a holding tank, in which he’ll be able to store precious acequia flow in future years, before it goes dry again. And he’s switching from traditional flood irrigation, the way it’s always been done in Placitas, to more efficient drip tape. Perhaps ingenuity and resilience will help him cope with the new normal.
Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a food columnist based in Placitas, New Mexico.