July 19, 2021: How Water Shapes Landscape (and Ways to Prevent Desertification)

Above: The Rio Pojoaque in Santa Fe County, often a mudflat of hard, cracked clay, is still wet from heavy rains, which are transported from the city to the Rio Grande.     

    When we look at landscape, whether in the country or the city, we are rarely looking at “nature,” but at land shaped by human activity, often for millennia. We are looking not only at the present, but back into the activity of multiple human cultures.

     Here in the highly creative, highly diverse culture of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I will be well into next month, I am learning a lot about water, the lack of it, the problems it creates when there’s too much of it, and its effect on the landscape.

     Extreme weather has left the northwestern U.S., Canada, Germany, and Moscow shell-shocked, The New York Times reports, as it becomes clear that the wealthiest nations of the world—which have made the largest contribution to human-induced climate change through over-reliance on coal, oil, and gas—can neither live with the situation nor solve it.

     Yet, this is the task at hand for communities across the world. Right now, unlike most of the West, the Santa Fe area in northwestern New Mexico is spared extreme wildfire danger and is currently declared not in short-term drought by the USDA—though it is in long-term drought.

     My hosts here described their suffering during a long, agonizing period of record-high temperatures and rainlessness, only broken a few weeks before my arrival by frequent afternoon storms, which have continued.

     Here, the raging climate crisis and the apparent scarcity of water have city officials and planners of all persuasions in conflict. On the one hand, they need to protect property from the sudden deluges that are common here; on the other, they are trying to prevent increasing desertification of the landscape.

     I learned from an article in the Santa Fe Reporter published June 30—” Water Wounds” by William Melhado—that preventing desertification means keeping the water in the soil, not sending it off on a wild ride down to the Rio Grande.

     A large part of the problem, Melhado reports, is Santa Fe’s network of arroyos—gulches that are often dry, providing picturesque walkways through the city and shelter for unhoused residents. The problem with arroyos is that they catch water, send it away from populated areas, and do not allow it to sink into the surrounding ground. Their 17th and 18th-century precursors were acequias, a system of channels used in Spain and in the Spanish colonies here to send water out into the fields.

     The arrival of railroads in the 1800s exacerbated the problem, allowing colonists from the Eastern U.S. to transport sheep and cattle, which ate and trampled upon prairie shortgrass. The former prairie grassland landscape turned rainwater into sheets that could flow across the land and allow it to sink into the soil, Melhado notes.

     Now, instead of grazing, Santa Fe must deal with what one of the experts Melhado quotes calls “impervious development.” Aaron Kauffman, a hydrologist, and founder of Southwest Urban Hydrology points out that roads, streets, parking lots, and hard, slick roofs send water coursing off the land at an unnaturally high speed and force, allowing it to strip the soil instead of saturating it.

     The solution, Melhado writes, is “a return to ancient ways of thinking about water.” These include the construction of rain gardens, pools that are lined with rocks and plants, which allow water to infiltrate instead of running off. Another approach is the construction of traditional “media luna,” crescents of rocks that slow and disperse the water. These are ancient techniques, constructed of “little more than stones and dirt.”

     Does Santa Fe have enough water to support the continued existence of urban life? Perhaps more than enough. Andy Otto, the Santa Fe Watershed’s Association’s Executive Director points out, according to Melhado, that that the watershed consists of 182,400 acres, and gets 12 inches of rainwater a year, which is 59 billion gallons. The city consumes less than 3 billion gallons a year.

     Given current conditions, Santa Fe may not have an unsolvable problem. Is this kind of thinking—working with the natural contours of the land, and its current cycles, applicable to communities in the American West? How much of this crisis can be prevented by subtle, sometimes ancient adjustments in our treatment of the Earth?

Source Notes:

The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDS) consists of multiple agencies that coordinate drought information across the U.S. National and local information is updated weekly. Data on Santa Fe County can be found on this page

“No One is Safe: Extreme Weather Batters the Wealthy World,” by Somini Sengupta of The New York Times, published July 17, 2021. The article is behind a paywall but has been carried by multiple publications, check link on this page

“Water Wounds,” published June 30, 2021 in the Santa Fe Reporter, William Melhado’s cover story on the desertification problem in Santa Fe and ways to prevent it, check link on this page