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Last Updated: 01/18/2005
Water War
Sam Wolf Cheney

Sam Wolf Cheney comes from a small town in Northern New Mexico, near the state capital of Santa Fe where he has lived for much of his adult life. The conflict there stems from familiar sources: struggle over scarce natural resources (primarily water); the arrival of one ethnic group into territory long held by another; a struggle between divergent cultural values; endemic poverty. Hope lies in shared responibility...


Being fortunate enough to come from a country where war and famine are known only distantly and with commercial breaks, it seems nearly unfair to discuss challenges to peace in this context. And yet I cannot say that my home, or my experience of life there, was or is truly peaceful.

 

I come from a small town in Northern New Mexico, near the state capital of Santa Fe where I have lived for much of my adult life. Our conflict stems from familiar sources: struggle over scarce natural resources (primarily water); the arrival of one ethnic group into territory long held by another; a struggle between divergent cultural values; endemic poverty.

 

Santa Fe was founded in 1610 as the capital of the Kingdom of New Mexico. When Mexico achieved independence, it included this territory (as well as California, Texas, Arizona, and Nevada). Texas’ successful war for independence from Mexico and subsequent joining of the US was one trigger of the Mexican-American war,[1] in which Mexico was defeated and the area now called New Mexico was ceded to the US; it remained a territory from 1848 until 1912 when it became a state. As for the region’s inhabitants, little but their citizenship changed until a group of proto-beatniks from the East Coast (lured there by advertisements like: “There is more of historic, prehistoric, human and scenic interest…than in any similar area of the world, not excepting India, Egypt, Europe, or Asia…”[2]) discovered the stunning beauty of the place, buying cheap land and reinventing themselves as artists.[3]

 

There was widespread resentment against these newcomers[4]. Growing population increased resource pressure and a growing tourist industry pressured ethnic groups to market themselves to adapt to the new economy.[5]  By 1927, recent arrivals were complaining about tourism and newer arrivals.[6] In the sixties, the hippies discovered the region—replete with cheap mountain land, natural hot springs, and a general disregard for law enforcement[7]--and founded a number of communes. The American Indian Movement (AIM) at this time began to  raise consciousness among Native Americans[8].

 

As the Hispanic population was most affected (the Native population being largely confined to reservations, their land therefore unavailable for purchase) the result was a peculiar dynamic in which those making the loudest protestations against the newcomers were themselves relatively new-come.[9] The local economy, heavily based on barter, couldn’t compete with cash. The newcomers, largely Anglo, were able to buy up large pieces of land; farmers or ranchers tired of struggling to make ends meet took the bait and moved to the cities, or subdivided their land. Traditional adobe[10] homes, requiring a great deal of labor (traditionally a community effort) but little money (building materials being mud and straw) gave way to mass-produced trailers. In the space of two generations, people with a centuries-old way of life became a racially defined underclass. With some justification, Anglo newcomers were largely blamed. Until the advent of Indian gaming (discussed below), the Native population was so marginalized that they played little role in this dynamic.

 

Structurally, the overt conflict is as follows. The Southwest is commonly believed to have been in a drought for nearly 10 years. However, recent climatological data indicates that until the last 12 years, the region was in an uncharacteristically wet period—for two centuries. We aren’t in a drought; we’re returning to normal. Rather than hoping for the end of the drought, we must rethink our whole lifestyle and development model.[11]

 

Many Hispanic families in New Mexico rely heavily on agriculture—cattle and hay, primarily—for income. As there is very little regional rainfall, irrigation takes on an extraordinary importance, and “acequia culture” is one of the distinct and fascinating aspects of Northern New Mexico.[12]

 

Anglos purchasing land have sometimes gotten water rights to go along with it. With some exceptions, their water use is oriented towards what might be called “recreational” uses—landscaping, gardens, lawns, etc. When water runs short, this creates resentment among those who are really dependent upon having a certain quantity of water for their livelihood. Additionally, there are a number of wealthy investors doing their best to cash in on the “land of enchantment” by building luxurious gated communities[13], exclusive hotels, and golf courses—all water intensive. Anglos are the primary force behind these developments.

 

Though there was once a strong agricultural tradition among Native Americans, this way of life has largely been destroyed. Recently, many regional tribes have opened casinos[14] and with the enormous financial gains generated are now investing in other, more water-intensive developments, including golf courses and luxury hotels.[15] While the US government has a perfect track record of breaking treaties with native peoples,[16] the state government, faced with a legally informed and financially powerful native population, has a hard time preventing them from doing as they wish with water legally theirs.[17] Both Anglos and Hispanics often resent what they see as an unfair and unreasonable use of water.

 

Three summers ago matters came to a head. The water shortage became so acute that the “average citizen” was deeply affected: no new plantings, watering outdoors only at night and once per week, subsidized “low-flow” toilets to replace traditional ones, restaurants prohibited from serving water except on request, etc. Meanwhile, a luxury development just outside town (Las Campanas, note 13, infra) poured daily on their two 18-hole golf courses what an average two person home would use in the course of over 30 years. In an effort to placate the populace[18], the city came up with a deal to sell Las Campanas treated effluent to supply some of their need. However, this treated effluent had previously been pumped back into the Santa Fe river, flowing through a very old and traditional community a short distance further south which relied on the water to fill the acequias and maintain their traditional way of life. City dwellers believed that if this effluent was made available it should be used on public spaces rather than private golf courses. So the city found themselves in a more complicated position, angering rather than placating more people.

 

The end result was that a Northern alfalfa farmer (probably Hispanic) could drive from his parched fields to the capital past miles of dead trees[19] and find parks full of dead grass. On the way, s/he would pass at least 4 emerald-green golf courses, two owned by Native Americans and two owned by wealthy Anglos who generally lived there for only a few months out of the year.

 

In this situation it is challenging to unwind all the bits of the issue and describe what exactly are the challenges to peace. At present it is the shortage of water which is providing fodder for discord; however, I believe that water is simply a socially acceptable medium for negotiating the racial tensions that have mostly lain latent for many years. As part of the equality myth of the US[20], race has become a taboo subject in many public fora. However, this obviously has not solved underlying racial tensions in areas where class divisions tend to fall along racial lines.[21]

 

The challenge, then, becomes to address the underlying race issues in order that the much advertised “3 cultures”[22] can begin to deal with the fact that they are sharing a small and delicate bit of territory. Each of the three are approaching the situation as a zero-sum game; they must get as much of the water as possible for themselves, and to hell with the rest. The result is a classic example of “the tragedy of the commons” in which all, working to exploit a resource before anyone else does, contribute to its rapid destruction. Without a dialogue addressing shared goals for the region, the three groups will continue to do their best to “get ahead” pulling them all further behind in the process.

 

Though going into this project I knew that it would to be challenging to find many public references to race issues, I didn’t realize that it would be virtually impossible. It is a nearly constant conversation in the region; and yet in hundreds of books about the area, years of newspaper archives, and hours on the internet I can find hardly a reference. This is, I believe, primarily due to two factors: first, the taboo nature of the subject (nationwide); and secondly, the fact of how high the tension actually runs. In the middle 90s we had a mayor who mentioned in a public speech that perhaps it wouldn’t be all bad if the Anglos’ houses burned down and were run out of town; when I was a child one independence day 4 houses owned by Anglos burned to the ground.[23] The list of examples is endless, and highlights the reality of the tension: any public discussion of it is likely to degenerate into recriminations and a dredging up of historical injustices on both sides, further increasing tension.

 

What is needed—though I fear not likely—is a forum at which individuals from all three cultural communities, as well as individuals from the numerous other affected groups, could together begin to address a new question. Thus far the discussion about water has been focused by each affected group on meeting their needs, and at best finding a compromise. Litigation is frequent. This public discussion has not, however, focused upon learning what everyone does agree on. Even a few simple things would be a start: everyone is likely to agree that all should have access to clean water for drinking/sanitation/etc;[24] everyone is likely to agree that there should be some public parks for kids to play in. A forum encouraging people to look at the struggle from this angle would be the beginning of a dialogue which could lead further than any of the hostile and aggressive public meetings currently held about water issues have.[25] Another positive aspect of such a dialogue would be that it would bring members of the different cultural communities together, hopefully in a less confrontational way. Currently, there is an extraordinarily limited about of mixing between the cultures.[26] I feel awkward because despite having grown up in an area predominantly Hispanic I can count on one hand the number of Hispanic friends I have; however, most of my Anglo friends can’t count any. I didn’t have a single Native friend until a girlfriend began working for a Native American College.

 

While in many ways the whole situation appears intractable, I believe there are at least a few reasons for optimism. First (obviously a mixed blessing) the water situation has reached a critical stage; people will be forced, within a few years, to begin making challenging decisions and coming up with creative solutions. Second, though in many ways the underlying racial conflict is very old, it has also reached very significant proportions only in the last several decades as the number of Anglos has grown enough to both precipitate a crisis and also to necessitate a serious engagement with the situation. Children now are growing up in a more racially balanced environment; it is clear that the Anglos are here to stay (of course, Hispanic or Anglo parents may transmit their resentment to their children, perpetuating the conflict). Last, hopefully the influx of money to the various tribes through gaming, focused heavily on scholarships and the betterment of tribal conditions, will have a positive impact in the near future. Unfortunately, as the bulk of the gambling customers are lower-income Hispanics, this may also prove to be a further point of contention as power between those groups shifts.[27]

 

Ultimately, only a sincere effort from members of all groups concerned to resolve their differences and address shared goals and challenges will have a positive impact. It remains to be seen how these interconnected communities will chose to address their own situation: refusing to address it in a meaningful way in order to validate their blaming of other groups; or accepting a shared responsibility for both the problems and their solutions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes

 



[1] This was a war begun April 25, 1846 and ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. Roger Lee, “The Mexican-American War” The History Guy, Available at http://www.historyguy.com/Mexican-American_War.html

 

[2] Hunter Clarkson (founder of “Indian Detours”, chauffeured and guided automobile trips), August 29, 1925, cf. Marta Weigle, “Southwest Lures: Innocents Detoured, Incensed Determined” Available at http://digital.library.arizona.edu/jsw/3204/lures/lures.html. Hereafter referred to as Weigle.

 

[3] Mabel Dodge Lujan is often credited with having started this movement: “Mabel Dodge Sterne came to Taos in 1917. She hoped to persuade her famous friends to introduce to the world a utopian new order that she perceived existed in the Taos Pueblo life style. Her goal was to change the world. Mabel married Tony Lujan, a native of the pueblo. She publicized the area’s unique cultures (Pueblo Indian and Spanish) and its dramatic scenery. She attracted to Taos a whole salon of writers, artists, and precedent-setters, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Willa Cather…Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley.” From the website of the Taos National Society of Watercolorists, available at: http://www7.taosnet.com/watercolor/taosnm.htm.

 

[4]When that Dodge woman showed up, that’s when it all started going to hell.” Kathleen Modrowski, Professor at Long Island University, relates hearing an elderly Hispanic man in a café say while reminiscing with a friend about “the good old days.” Spring 2004.

 

[5] “The tourism industry took a third world place and mystified it as the ‘Land of Enchantment’ and it stuck, but there is a disconnect between that and the reality…” Sylvia Rodriguez discussing her community seminar, “Tourism and Power in the Land of Enchantment” July 10, 2001, cf the University of New Mexico’s Public Affairs web page. Available at: http://www.unm.edu/news/Releases/Jul10rodriquez.htm

 

Also see Weigle.

 

[6] “I learned that Santa Fe had been an even lovelier city half a generation earlier…Indians were getting their values warped…everything was becoming commercialized and spoiled.” Emily Hahn, Times and Places, 1971. Pinnacle, Books, NY. Cf Weigle. The irony is that one can hear exactly the same sentiment expressed today as ever more Banana Republic and Ann Taylor outlets open downtown.

 

[7] The hippies were not known for their subtlety, and can hardly be said to have tried to enter new communities gracefully. They were responsible for my arrival in Northern New Mexico (I was born on a commune) and also, through a propensity for nudist colonies and tie-dyed “happenings” which tended to block traffic and scare the cows, played a part in setting the stage for racial tension.

 

[8] The American Indian Movement as a formal movement was created in 1968 in Minnesota, though they consider themselves a continuation of 500 years of resistance to Western domination. Among other things, their official website proclaims “Things will never be the same again and that is what the American Indian Movement is about… they are respected by many, hated by some, but they are never ignored…they are the catalyst for Indian Sovereignty…they intend to raise questions in the minds of all, questions that have gone to sleep in the minds of Indians and non-Indian alike…” available at: http://www.aimovement.org/ggc/index.html

 

[9] A personal vignette: in high school I (Anglo) was cornered by a group of local boys who said they were going to kick my ass because the gringos were taking all their land. I pointed out (unwisely, perhaps) that they had taken all of the Indians land, and got thrown against a wall for my trouble. “That was different!” shouted one of the boys.

 

[10] Dried mud bricks, generally handmade.

 

[11] According to John Fleck, “Drought Reigns in New Mexico History” The Albuquerque Journal, 1997, “…[N]ew research suggests the past two centuries have been the wettest period of the past 1,500 years in New Mexico…the past 20 years have been the wettest period of all, with rainfall 23 percent above the long-term New Mexico average…the implication…is that the farms, cities, and irrigation networks of the modern Southwest were built on rivers swollen by unusually wet weather.” Available at http://www.abqjournal.com/2000/1mill5-27.htm

 

Also, “Since 1996, the illusion that New Mexico’s twenty-some years of record precipitation had become “normal” has been shattered…state and local officials…have begun to take seriously the likelihood of chronic shortages of water…” “Understanding and Responding to the Commodification of Water” Amigos Bravos/Somos Vecinos Commodification Project, Review Draft, 7/22/03 ,p19. Hereafter referred to as Commodification. Available at:

 http://www.amigosbravos.org/projects/ABCommodificationofWater.pdf

 

 

[12] “…[I]n New Mexico, an acequia…refers to a centuries-old system of communal management of water and to the community of farmers that cooperatively maintain the ditch and distribute irrigation water. Acequias formed the basis for settlement of New Mexico’s Indo-Hispano communities between two and four hundred years ago and continue to be vital to the cultural and economic survival of the traditional communities of New Mexico.” “La Acequia” from the New Mexico Acequia Association website, available at: http://www.acequiaweb.org/

 

Most communities annually elect a “mayordomo” who is responsible for making sure that everyone gets the water they are supposed to get and no one takes too much. This becomes an extremely political position. Gustav, a farmer in the town of Cordova, reports that when he complained to the mayordomo about his inability to get water at his allocated time, the mayordomo told him it was too bad because the guy stealing the water had threatened to shoot him if he tried to enforce the rules. When Gustav complained further about a man who owned a portable toilet business dumping effluent into the acequia, he was given a larger water allocation and offered a position on the school board (a position that comes with numerous lucrative perks). Personal interview, July 2004.

 

[13] Las Campanas, the best known and most controversial of these developments, notes on their website that Santa Fe, while “…rich in tradition and history…[and] the oldest capital city in the United States…home to Pueblo Indians for more than 1,000 years…most importantly, it is home to the community of Las Campanas.” “Life in Santa Fe” from the Las Campanas website, available at http://www.lascampanas.com/index.aspx?nav=2&level=1&pk=9

 

[14] As of Fall 2003 13 of the states 22 tribes have established gaming venues. Since 1988, annual revenue from tribal gaming has grown from $100 million to $12.7 billion nationwide. Monica Abeita, state Tourism Department’s Indian Tourism Program Manager, says “The tribes have faced chronic poverty for generations, but gaming is finally providing a way to turn things around.” Many tribes have used the windfall to establish scholarship programs for tribal youth and made other major investments in their own communities. “Tribes Hit the Jackpot” Kevin Robinson-Avila, New Mexico Resources, Fall 2003, pdf available at:

 http://www.cahe.nmsu.edu/pubs/resourcesmag/fall03/3%20Jackpot.pdf

 

[15] “…tribes are diversifying their entertainment venues to attract more tourists from other states. Five of the tribes have built golf courses…some pueblos… are turning their entertainment venues into complete ‘tourist destinations’…” Ibid.

 

[16] “Question: So all treaties have been breached? Yes!” “Frequently Asked Questions” Robert Strongrivers, available at http://members.tripod.com/pointingbird/lostfeatherintl/id42.htm

 

[17] One of the complications arises from the fact that while the state is responsible for most water issues, Native (reservation) water rights are managed by the federal government. Commodification, p 17.

 

[18] A popular bumper sticker at this time read “I’ll stop watering my garden when Las Campanas stops watering their golf courses.”

 

[19] Due to the dry conditions, Piñon  trees have lost a normal resistance to an endemic beetle, and begun to die in massive numbers. Justin Stockdale, director of recycling and “green” waste for Santa Fe county, reported in Winter 2003 that his department had over 20,000 tons of dead trees to handle and was receiving over 1,000 tons per month. Forestry experts estimate that Northern New Mexico will lose 90-100% of the Piñon trees, which are the bulk of our vegetation.

 

[20] Though there isn’t space here to give a full treatment to this subject, essentially what I mean is the tendency of dominant discourse (academic, media, and pop-cultural) to avoid the race issue and the reality that the nation was founded upon racist principles. Working in a bookstore recently I discovered that many purported histories of Native America made no mention of smallpox (thought to be responsible for the deaths of up to 90% of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas and was used as a biological weapon by the US and Canadian governments); many histories of the US have no entries for Indians (or Native Americans) in their indices. All school textbooks discuss Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation; few discuss his campaign proclamations that Blacks serving Whites as slaves is part of the natural order of things. For further examples and deeper treatment of the subject, see Freire, 1970; Zinn, 2002; Cheney, 2000.

 

[21] Of course as with all generalizations, however accurate, there are exceptions. As one of the only Anglo families living in my town while I was growing up, we were also one of the poorest—with the paradoxical result that I was as a child threatened by people upset about Anglos buying land that my family  could never hope to afford.

 

[22] “Get a real feel for the city on an open-air trolley tour…embark on a walking tour that follows in the footsteps of the city’s three cultures…” Personal Discovery tours  (1 week, $2200) available at http://www.tauck.com/docs/jx_f.htm;  Santa Fe is celebrated as ‘the city of three cultures” Richard McCord, “The Different City” available at http://www.sfaol.com/mccord/different.html; “Three cultures…blend here in unexpected and captivating ways…” Lori Erickson, “Magical Santa Fe” in Drive: The Magazine from Subaru Available at:

 http://www.drivesubaru.com/Win04_RoadTrips.htm

 

[23] The fire department was somehow unable to make it in time (in a town with three streets) and it was ruled an unfortunate accident due to fireworks.

 

[24] As some towns surrounding Santa Fe have actually run out of water completely in recent years (wells gone dry and rivers dried up) and are dependent upon trucking water in from outside sources, this isn’t currently a reality.

 

[25] City council meetings on water-related subjects often run until two or three in the morning and involve a great deal of shouting.

 

[26] It is not an exaggeration to say that nearly all of the Anglos I meet in Santa Fe are, for one, from somewhere else; but also that they are always surprised to find that I’m actually from the area as they have never met anyone “from” there before. I generally quip that there aren’t many of us left; the reality is that there are lots of “us” left, but the majority have been forced by rising property taxes into trailer parks and cheap apartments on the “wrong” side of town. There is even a hierarchy among working class groups like waiters; the tourist restaurants downtown, expensive and therefore with good tips to be made, generally have all-Anglo wait staff and an all-immigrant kitchen staff; cheaper restaurants and fast-food places have local Hispanic staff. Though I don’t have a source to back this, I spent the better part of a decade working in and managing a number of restaurants in Santa Fe and found this universally to be the case.

 

[27] John and Maggie Muchmore, currently working on a book about Northern New Mexico in the late sixties, comment about race relations in the region saying  that “In NM the Indians, Local Hispanics, Mexicans and Anglos all have their own form of power and it is a very fluid situation… The power changes all the time [for example] gambling has given lots of power  to some Indians and not others…” Online interview for this paper, September 16, 2004.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Cheney, Sam Wolf 2000 Where’s the Education in My Experience? Unpublished thesis.

 

Erickson, Lori, 2004 “Magical Santa Fe” in Drive: The Magazine from Subaru, Available at: http://www.drivesubaru.com/Win04_RoadTrips.htm

 

Fleck, John 1997 “Drought Reigns in New Mexico History: The Albuquerque Journal http://www.abqjournal.com/2000/1mill5-27.htm

 

Freire, Paulo 1970 Pedagogy of the Oppressed. NY: Continuum

 

Hahn, Emily Times and Places, 1971. Pinnacle Books, NY. Cf Weigle.

 

Lee, Roger “The Mexican-American War” The History Guy, Available at http://www.historyguy.com/Mexican-American_War.html

 

McCord, Richard, “The Different City” available at http://www.sfaol.com/mccord/different.html;

 

Robinson-Avila, Kevin 2003 “Tribes Hit the Jackpot”, New Mexico Resources. Available at http://www.cahe.nmsu.edu/pubs/resourcesmag/fall03/3%20Jackpot.pdf

 

Strongrivers, Robert,  Frequently Asked Questions, available at http://members.tripod.com/pointingbird/lostfeatherintl/id42.htm

 

Weigle, Marta “Southwest Lures: Innocents Detoured, Incensed Determined” Available at http://digital.library.arizona.edu/jsw/3204/lures/lures.html. 

 

Zinn, Howard 2003 A People's History of the United States:1492-present NY: Harper Collins

 

 

Authorless Sources:

 

 “La Acequia” from the New Mexico Acequia Association website, available at: http://www.acequiaweb.org/

 

 

 “Understanding and Responding to the Commodification of Water”  2003 Amigos Bravos/Somos Vecinos Commodification Project, Review Draft. Available at http://www.amigosbravos.org/projects/ABCommodificationofWater.pdf

 

Website of the Taos National Society of Watercolorists, available at: http://www7.taosnet.com/watercolor/taosnm.htm.

 

 

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