Monday, October 24, 2011

Water in New Mexico

I just took a trip to New Mexico with my family. I thought a lot about water, its qualities, and our need for it, how it defines our lives – with either too much or too little of it, or the delight of discovering it in a stream, a landscape, or a hot spring. Driving through the desert, and looking at the mountains, you could see where the streams were – with the sinuous lines of aspens making their way down the mountain sides along the beds. In the valleys, rows of gnarly cottonwoods lined the arroyos to create lush screens between stretches of desert or grassland. The greatest river in the area, the Rio Grande, was sunk into the earth, so, that you had to descend into it to reach it’s cool green waters, and the lush banks that held healing plants. After the great expanses, and muted palette of the landscape it was healing just to see many shades of green. Hearing the water was also a joy -  its sounds cooled my thoughts, and refreshed my soul with its melody. 

In the midst of the formal settlement of the west in the nineteenth century, John Wesley Powell recommended that the western states be defined by watershed. Experiencing the critical nature of water while there, embracing such an idea would have been genius – considering the legal wrangling over water rights and uses that define modern times. That idea too would have helped to give people a stronger tie to the land – linking them to a specific basin that was responsible for their resource – making them stewards instead of consumers – with little consideration for those down the line or at the other end of the pipe.

It makes me glad to see that while there are the pervasive methods of storm water “management” that funnels runoff into giant catch basins– (the biggest I’ve ever seen) and into deep, deep detention ponds, notable examples of alternative storm water “management” are to be seen in that area. They include blue/green infrastructure in a traffic calming bump out by the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe – with an infiltration strip and plants instead of a giant gutter, and the well-preserved corridor around the river in Santa Fe to give a semblance of an intact riparian zone. Through thoughtful planning and design, the culture is beginning to change around storm water, rain and its critical role in sustaining life. 

Perhaps the most inspiring water related experience I had there though was learning about how the Taos Pueblo people won back their sacred blue lake that had been portioned off into a National Forest. This lake holds significant spiritual value to them, and its waters sustain their daily life. In the Pueblo, a Unesco heritage site, the stream from the blue lake is the only source of water. It runs directly through the center of the Village – from east to west. Along its banks are signs that ask visitors to respect the waters and keep them clean. The banks are verdant, and Cottonwoods and aspens thrive nearby, offering shade and color. I sat by the river for a large part of my visit there – listening to the water and looking to the mountains – following the colors of the aspens to observe the course of the water to the lake I would never see (only tribe members are allowed to go there). I am still struck by the power of being connected to your water source, making it sacred and part of a daily meditation. I don’t want to project too much onto anything that I don’t know much about, or romanticize, but that experience was powerful to me. It’s marvelous to see the caring people are capable of when given a sense of connection to where they are, and how the relationship they share with the landscape can go both ways and develop into a something profound and lasting. 

Santa Fe River

River, Taos Pueblo

Hot Spring by the Rio Grande

Rio Grande

River, Taos Pueblo

Rio Grande Gorge

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