The 1928 report they call “Burkholder’s Bible” – more formally “A Plan For Flood Control, Drainage and Irrigation of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy Project” – must be treated as one of modern Albuquerque’s founding texts. Like any such text, it rewards careful reading. Also in the manner of such texts, the more you read it, the more confounding it becomes.
For the new book Bob Berrens and I are beginning to sketch out, we’ve been mucking our way through the question of what they were thinking back in 1928 as Albuquerque, on the brink of its charge into 20th century modernity, wrestled with the Rio Grande.
Human communities had lived comfortably with this river from “time immemorial” in the valley we now call Albuquerque – the indigenous communities tagged with the Spanish name “Pueblo”, then those self-same Spanish. Both built their villages on the high spots – near the river, but high enough to be relatively safer when the river spread across the valley floor during big spring runoffs.
As rivers do, the Rio Grande moved around. In our valley, it tended to pop back and forth between its current channel home and a corridor we now describe by its street names – “North Second, North Fourth”. In an earlier time it bore a more descriptive name – “the yazoo”. When the Rio Grande flooded in modern or near-modern times, it would temporarily reclaim the yazoo.
The early residents, the Pueblo and Spanish colonizers, used the river’s water to grow food – not a lot of it, but enough to mostly get by. To the extent agriculture was a commercially viable enterprise in our valley in the time before, it was sheep grazing in the uplands to the east and west – meat and wool. As a city grew, in the pre-refrigeration era dairies sprang up around Albuquerque’s edges.
But in Burkholder’s 1928, two inexorable forces were converging on the valley. The first was anglo-American modernity, which had started (as often did) with the arrival of a railroad, in our case the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe in the 1880s. The railroad brought wage jobs and immigrants and population growth, and the homes began spilling off the high spots. You can probably see what comes next – the water.
As the human population was changing, so was the river. Perhaps because of increased sediment resulting from overgrazing, perhaps because of reduced flows because of farming upriver in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, the river’s bed was rising. With it rose the water table, and once-farmable land in the lowlands adjacent to the river became waterlogged.
By the mid-1920s, surveyors reported more than half of the valley floor in the Albuquerque reach was waterlogged – water within two feet of the surface. They classified 16 percent of the valley’s floor as Some maps from the era we’ve been studying are pocked with amoeba-like outlines labeled “lake” cutting across old farm properties. “The need for drainage in the Middle Rio Grande,” Burkholder wrote, “is so self evident and so well known that little need be said in regard to.” Perhaps, but this did not slow Burkholder’s enthusiasm for the task, as his Plan laid out the elaborate scheme of a network of drains – low channels to carry off the groundwater – across the valley’s floor.
Without drainage this area will decrease year by year until the middle Rio Grande valley will become a vast swamp and the population will be forced to seek homes elsewhere.
Joseph Burkholder is an amazing character. A product of what historians call “the progressive era”, when science would be used by an elite to bring us a boundless future (see Samuel Hayes’ Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency).
Burkholder was part of that elite. As General Superintendent of Construction and Assistant General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, he oversaw construction of Met’s Colorado River Aqueduct. He went on to serve as General Manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, where he went on to serve as one of San Diego’s first representatives on the Met board.
But before all that, his first big project was here on central New Mexico’s Rio Grande, where he was chief engineer overseeing the creation of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.
Today most Albuquerque discussion and discourse around the Conservancy District is about agricultural irrigation, something that did have a crucial place in Burkholder’s plan. “Urban values are dependent, to a great extent, upon the agricultural interests of the surrounding country,” Burkholder wrote. It was a moment of transition from being an agricultural nation to being an urban one, and it was hard for the progressives at that moment to see the unlinking of those two things that would follow. Cities, in their thinking, would be surrounded by farms.
This is the hard part of parsing Burkholder’s Bible. How clearly did he and his colleagues understand that they were building the foundations of an urban valley? Could they have foreseen the railroad bringing us all our food, and the falling away of commercial agriculture in the valley? Was drainage really to save waterlogged farm lands, or to pave the way for the tracts of homes that would soon pop up on the valley floor?
We treat drainage and flood control as solved problems today and don’t think about them much – “dogs that don’t bark”, to borrow from the great water policy thinker Sherlock Holmes. (The lack of a dog barking was the key to solving the mystery of the missing racehorse Silver Blaze. Holmes bids us pay attention to the dogs not barking.) Within a few years of the construction of Burkholder’s drains, the dogs of waterlogging barked no more. Flood control took longer – setting out the draglines to dig the valleys drains was easier than the dams and levees need to reduce what hey called then “the flood menace”. More things were broken in the process, some irreparably, most especially the historic Pueblo community of Cochiti.
But a quarter million people now live on that valley floor, and they don’t hear the bark of those dogs.
You can find copies of Burkholder’s Bible here.