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Brown/My Turn: New appreciation for water

Before I moved to the Southwest, Recorder editorial page editor Justin Abelson agreed that I could submit a periodic column with a perspective different from those voiced in Franklin County.

Therefore, I would like to talk about drought.

I know that water scarcity is the last topic on the minds of New Englanders who have been stricken with the worst winter in recent memory. I lived in Greenfield throughout this January and was whipsawed in equal measure by Polar Vortexes, snowstorms and wild monsoons of rain. When we arrived in Taos, N.M., at the end of the month, it rained and snowed for the following week. My wife and I were convinced that we had carried some curse westward and that our new neighbors would hate us for it.

Not so. Although the first month of 2014 brought unlimited sunlight and mild temperatures, the local residents were alarmed, not elated. Endless days of sunshine meant drought and drought in the desert brings about questions of survival Easterners rarely have to think about. In fact, when it did precipitate during that week, folks were beside themselves with joy. Watching the Albuquerque television news, the weatherman was so delighted to report an expectant rain front that he and the other anchorwoman sounded positively giddy. I expected them to break out into a Bollywood song and dance number extolling the glories of moisture right in front of the cameras!

The necessity of water changes one’s perception the moment you arrive in Taos. If buying a house, the first question is whether the new abode has “water rights.” These rights ensure that you have legal title to the water on your land, whether from a well on the property or from the water flowing through a system of irrigation ditches called acequias (ah-seek-ee-yahs).

These narrow canals were brought over by the Spanish who settled northern New Mexico in the early 1600s; they in turn having learned it from the Moors. Many ditches crisscross the region with gates that direct the water flow to different properties. The acequia flow is administered depending on the day of the week (i.e., you get the water, Monday, Wednesday and Friday; your neighbor, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday). A fine movie, “The Milagro Beanfield War,” based on the book by Taos native John Nichols and directed by Robert Redford, illustrates the delicacies of these arrangements. A parcel of land with an acequia running through it can easily add five figures to the purchase price and all would consider that a wise investment.

Taos is flanked by the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountain range and it is always a joy to see it covered with snow. That snow will translate into run-off for both the acequias and the aquifers that offer life to the region. Without that snow and the rains of summer, northern New Mexico would be uninhabitable.

This is no exaggeration. The Southwest has numerous ruins of pueblos inhabited by the Anasazi, an ancient tribe that is no more. They disappeared along with the rain sometime 700 years ago. This region has had cycles of abundance and drought but according to scientists, we are heading into the latter, which will be worsened by global warming. Around 1150 AD, the region experienced “The Great Drought” that lasted three centuries. Current models say that 10 to 20 years are more likely. In view of this, one can question the wisdom of sprawling desert cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas (combined population 2 million) with their myriad golf courses and miles of watered lawns.

Fortunately, Taos is smaller and growth is controlled. Still, living in a high desert climate has altered my attitude toward that stuff flowing out of the tap. I don’t take it for granted and remember to say a small prayer of thanks whenever I hold a glass in my hand. Water is used for plants and fruit trees only (Xeriscaping, a conservative form of landscaping that uses minimum water, is very popular) and the car rarely sees a wash. In fact, a dusty vehicle is a badge of local pride. Long-term drought will influence our decision to make this move to New Mexico permanent. On the other hand, the native inhabitants of Taos Pueblo have lived here sustainably for 1,000 years.

If I have a message for my friends and former neighbors in Franklin County, it is this: Despite the current deluge, never take your own water for granted. Several years ago, Nestlé tried and failed to drill for water on the Montague Plains. As water is said to be the next oil, they or someone like them will be back. Like most multi-national corporations, they will lie to your town leaders about how selling your water to them will lower the tax rate, bring new jobs and improve the local economy.

Don’t fall for it. Water is a precious human right and once it is gone, it is gone forever.

Daniel A. Brown lived in Franklin County from 1970 to 2014 as an artist, writer, amateur historian, and photographer before moving to Taos, New Mexico. He welcomes feedback at dbrown1793@gmail.com.

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