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Water Politics

Updated on March 30, 2013
more precious than gold
more precious than gold | Source

The Tuesday, March 26th Albuquerque Journal reminds us that Palm Sunday also marked the 179th anniversary of the birth of John Wesley Powell. Major Powell came from New York, was educated in Illinois, and after the Civil War, during which he lost an arm at Shiloh, he set out on an expedition to explore the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. His name is famous in and enshrined by several western locales. The recent newspaper article had to do with a plan he devised to employ watershed boundaries to form western states not yet established. Despite decades spent urging Congress to pay heed to the aridity of the West and insure irrigation for crops, little happened before the election of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 and the passage of the Reclamation Act a year later.

Water is a big deal in the West, much more so than back east, where it is plentiful. Not only the Colorado is affected. So is the Rio Grande, and mention is also made in the article, by John Fleck, of at least one lawsuit having to do with this river. It concerns the dubious subject of water rights, already in the supreme court. In the late 1800s it might have been understandable that people thought rain would satisfy the needs and requirements of agricultural endeavors in the absence of all else. But those who live in and around Albuquerque know well that within the past three years almost no rainfall or snowfall has occurred. Different weather patterns prevail throughout New Mexico, to be sure, but it is basically a state bereft of dependable moisture.

Although New Mexico is mostly desert, or so it often seems, it has enough water for ordinary consumption. But it is also an agricultural and natural resources state, involving livestock, farming, and mining. Such activities take the lion's share. No matter how much effort individuals apply toward the problem to conserve and preserve, it will never amount to enough to thwart various disaster scenarios. In other words, except as a lever to possibly influence politicians, people cannot affect the ultimate outcome of the problems having to do with water shortages. They can take shorter showers if they want, and refrain from sprinkling their lawns at the prescribed times, but few of these precautions are likely to do anything other than enable citizens to feel better about themselves.

Then again, to call what flows in the rivers of the southwest water is something of a stretch. Without treatment plants, its personal users would not be here. Every single year, snow melts in the San Juans of Colorado and sends relatively fresh water down into New Mexico. But by the time it arrives in the state's town, village, and city water systems, it has long since blended with the mystery fluids that define what it is that actually flows. A quaint story told time and again in scholarly and/or historical books has to do with the Great Stink of 1858. In London, the Thames had become so polluted that its foul smell affected members of Parliament. It was not only the Thames. How bodies of water, in defiance of logic, became favorite dumping grounds is a story in and of itself.

The Rio Grande does not offend the nose, and yet the passer-by or onlooker can only wonder what its content consists of. And that is the whole point of the hub. If our rivers, from which we draw our drinking, cleaning, and cooking water are polluted, which they are, what exactly is this liquid? If it is not water, but H2O in addition to lots of additives and random industrial and agricultural chemicals, then is it not instead of water rather a water-based product? We are always told that it is perfectly safe to drink tap water, but many remain unconvinced. Certainly, our state and municipal officials would not deliberately poison us. But they sometimes treat us shabbily, and at least in the West, the cavalier attitude of our representatives and bureaucracies emerges conspicuously enough against the background of water politics.

Powell cannot help us now. But he did not have to be a visionary to see the main issue in the West in the late 1860s. It is readily apparent to anyone's eyes. Subscribers to the Albuquerque Journal are even more knowledgeable. Recent articles on the Hatch and Mesilla Valleys, where farmers have resorted to pumping groundwater, are informative. Parts of the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico are actually dry, an observation of passing interest to the curious, but a matter of life and death to those whose livelihood depends upon decent irrigation. What Powell can perhaps do is inspire westerners to grapple with the bitter legacies of desert or semi-desert living. This whole area captured his imagination. It has snagged many another's as well.


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