|Photo by Seth Roffman|
Ethics and economics compete for fair distribution of water among people, industry & ecosystems as rural New Mexico communities and Central Valley California farmers face serious challenges
By Arty Mangan
“The irrigated lands are the sacred lands”… Dr. Sylvia Rodriguez of University of New Mexico
Doing research for the Dreaming New Mexico project I went to Zia Puebloand spoke with Native American tribal leader Peter Pino, who said,
“Because we live in a semi-arid region everything within our traditional calendar has to do with praying for rain. When we are out in the field we compose new songs singing to the corn, asking the clouds to come and to shower us with rain to soak into the ground and water the crops, because without water nothing can exist.
“Not only humans need water, birds need water, our four-legged brothers and sisters need water, insects need water, plants need water. We always pray for rain on a daily basis.”
More recently I attended the Celebrando Las Acequias event in Dixon, NM. The acequias are an ancient irrigation technology originating in the Mid East and arriving in New Mexico with the Spanish in the late 1500’s.
Not just a means of delivering water to crops, the acequias have historically been a way that people have culturally organized themselves in rural communities in Northern NM and southern Colorado. Mayordomos, or ditch managers, and parciantes collectively maintain the ditch and water-flow and see that water is fairly distributed.
Modern pressures on traditional life-ways, as portrayed in the movie the Milagro Beanfield War, are unraveling the agrarian life that has been the cultural heart of rural Southwestern Hispanic communities for hundred’s of years. Under Spanish law water was seen as a community resource with water rights connected to the land. That concept was based on the Muslim “Law of Thirst” that said one could not deny water to other humans, animals and plants.
But now water is viewed as a commodity that can be sold off away from the land to developers downstream, condemning, in semi-arid New Mexico, the land to be forever barren agriculturally.
Stewardship, conservation and equitable distribution of water among agriculture, industry, households, recreation, and ecosystem needs are difficult calculations. What rights does the river have?
In California’s Central Valley last year the heat on the culture wars was turned up when Sean Hannerty of Fox News made a personal appearance lathering up farmers, who are under great duress because of a three-year drought (2007-2009). Hannerty’s mission was to vilify the delta smelt (and those who want it protected), as if this small endemic fish were Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
The delta smelt, an indicator species of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary, is in severe decline and has been protected by a court injunction that reduced water flow to farmers in the Central Valley and southern California urban areas exacerbating the water shortage due to the drought.
Farming is the largest global user of water using 70%- 80% of all water consumed. The EPA has identified farming as one of the most important sources of water quality degradation. Vast areas cleared of natural vegetation reduce essential watershed functions as well as produce large amounts of green house gas.
Vandana Shiva, in the movie Flow, says that green revolution crops use five to ten times more water than organic and traditional crops.
In the Dreaming New Mexico booklet: Local Foodsheds and a Fair Trade State Peter Warshall writes, “ Today there are many disharmonies between humans and water sources… Water can be viewed as a monetary commodity, an option for growth in the future that must be ‘banked’ in the present or for it’s intrinsic worth to all life (fish, trees and riparian birds)”.
Brock Dolman, of the Occidental Arts an Ecology Center’s Water Institute says, “The movement of water over and through the living ecosystem connects us to one and another and to all species living in our Basin of Relation. The quality and quantity of this precious liquid can determine which and how many of each species can sustainably live in each watershed. The better we understand the relationship between our actions and the water shed we live in, the more likely we are able to ensure water security for all species that share the water shed.”
Judiciously managing what is probably our most precious resource in ways that are specific to each watershed by monitoring groundwater withdrawals and recharge, mapping critical recharge areas that contribute to the replenishment of ground water, developing rainwater catchment systems, building swales and berms that slow down the flow to saturate the soil and prevent erosion, growing climate appropriate crops, and installing more efficient irrigation technologies are some practical ways to practice good stewardship of water and optimize its distributed use.
Respecting all species in our Basin of Relation by invoking the Law of Thirst are the ethics that can form the foundation for a moral economy in which the irrigated lands are truly sacred.