On Moving Water: The Exclusion Problem

I’ve written in the past about the importance of the notion of moving water from where it wants to be. A lot of our problems seem to happen when we do that, because water wants to be where it wants to be, and its powerful urges are difficult to resist.

My past discussions have focused on the problems that ensue when we engineer big interbasin transfers. But now that I’ve got this big “moving water” hammer, I’m seeing more nails. This week, it’s a piece for the newspaper about Albuquerque’s levee problems (sub/ad req):

The problem is rooted in the nature of the Rio Grande itself.

Before there were dams and levees, it wandered the entire Albuquerque valley, shifting its bed from one mesa to the other over a course of years. Flood control efforts begun in the 1930s confined the river to a narrow channel, with levees on either side to protect valley bottomlands so they could be turned into farms and eventually a city.

Under high flows, the river can push up against the levees, trying to find its way out across the flood plain.

The topography is subtle here, but we have neighborhoods below the grade of the river. That requires endless engineering in response, because the water in the long run would really prefer the low spot.

Previously: on moving water.


  1. Nice piece, and teaser to the larger article, John. One of the highlights from the many months in New Mexico was a whiz-bang tour of AMAFCA facilities just east of the downtown with Paul Matthews (Geog, UNM); I doubt 90% of the Albuquerque populations gives much thought to these remarkable structures and the quasi-LosAngelesRiver quality of the outlet drainages near I-25.

  2. Marc Simmons’s history of Albuquerque has a lot of interesting information on this issue and the way it has affected the city over the years. There was one major flood in the 1870s that nearly destroyed it entirely.

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