the ghosts of water “resources”

An old irrigation ditch in Albuquerque’s South Valley, updated

Driving in a pickup down a ditchbank on Albuquerque’s valley floor some years ago, Joey Trujillo pointed off to the west, to a line of trees snaking away into what is now a tony suburban neighborhood. It was the neighborhood we now call “Dietz Farm”, named after the Dietz family, affluent interlopers from the east who came to the area during the early decades of the 20th century. Like much of that era in Albuquerque’s history, the people who had the land before the Dietz’s have been erased, but the line of trees has not.

It was a late winter day. Joey was the head ditchrider for the valley, the people who keep the water flowing through the network of irrigation canals that have been here “forever”. I was watching as Joey’s crew carried out a version of a seasonal ritual that dates in this part of the valley to at least 1706, bringing the first water of spring to the valley floor. I say “at least”, because on the old irrigation system inventories maintained by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, there are a bunch of ditches with a 1706 date attached. The implication – this is not the date the ditches first ran, but rather our first surviving inventory of their presence and use.

Walk or ride your bike down the ditchbanks today, and you’ll see modern amenities, as in the concrete intervention in the picture above, often needed to get the old ditches under roadways. You’ll see gates to meter and measure the water’s flow, aptly called “control structures”. But the ditches often still follow routes laid out centuries ago. They are lined with trees tapping into the water seeping into the shallow aquifer from their unlined sides and bottoms. And if you look closely, you can still see the lines of trees left behind when old laterals were abandoned in succeeding waves of suburban development.

I am grateful to the geographer Jeremy Schmidt, who in his fascinating book Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity introduced me to the work and ideas of William John McGee, one of the 19th century “naturalists” who, alongside the likes of John Wesley Powell and Gifford Pinchot, framed a bunch of stuff in ways mostly unexamined by me. Until I’m forced to examine them.

I’m in the midst of three projects right now that are converging simultaneously on the questions raised by McGee and Joey Trujillo’s line of trees stretching out through that Dietz Farm neighborhood. The first is the book I’m writing with Eric Kuhn about the use and misuse of the science of the Colorado River, which has prompted a dive into the question of what we mean by “science”. The second is a University of New Mexico project focused on thinking about the “Grand Challenge” of sustainable water. The third is my endless delight in the ideas my students bring to me, in particular a group of students with fresh ideas about what the water problem is that we’re trying to solve. (Wisely, these students are not leaving it to Prof. Fleck to define the problem.)

McGee was secretary of the U.S. Inland Waterways Commission, appointed to the position by Teddy Roosevelt, when he wrote this in a 1909 essay called “Water as a Resource”:

Now is the time of conquest over nature in practical sense, of panurgy in philosophic sense – the day of prophecy made perfect in predetermined accomplishment.

“Panurgy” stumped me, and given the context I’m not sure McGee intended the sense I found when I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary for help: “Interference or mischief-making in all matters; knavery.” But the OED definition adds a nice flavor to our attempt to look back with our 21st century eyes to get a feel for what McGee was on about:

No more significant advance has been made in our history than that of the last year or two in which our waters have come to be considered as a resource – one definitely limited in quantity, yet susceptible of conservation and of increased beneficence through wise utilization. The conquest of nature, which began with progressive control of the soil and its products and passed to the minerals, is now extending to the waters on, above and beneath the surface. The conquest will not be complete until these waters are brought under complete control.

When I took over two years ago as director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, one of my colleagues stopped by to congratulate me, talk about our shared passion for water, and to make a longstanding request: Could I please drop “Resources” from my program’s name? Putting water into the conceptual “resource” box constrains our thinking about it, she argued, in ways that are an injustice to the many other conceptual frames that suggest values for its own sake rather than the “conquest” envisioned by McGee a century ago.

I didn’t change the program’s name. But the seed planted has been growing, which I’m guessing was her point.

The university’s “Grand Challenge” risks putting water into the “resource” box again, but after two years teaching and working with my amazing watery colleagues – geographers, landscape architects, historians, economists, hydrologists, engineers, political scientists, artists – I’m beginning to get a feel for the plasticity required to navigate the interdisciplinary nature of thinking about water.

I’m particularly indebted to one of my smart students who’s thinking really hard about those valley ditches. They are rooted in a long tradition of resource exploitation in the style of McGee, turning water out of the Rio Grande and across the otherwise parched spring and summer valley floor, a “conquest of nature” in the 1600s as sure as McGee’s early 20th century conception.

We can ship soy milk in from Iowa now. Those ditches thread through the valley floor in a way no longer needed for the conquest. But they have become something far more than a “resource” in the sense McGee was talking about, something much closer to the broader conception my faculty colleague was getting at when she came to me asking that “resource” be dropped from my program’s name.

Joey Trujillo died a few years ago, but it seems reasonable that the ditches he so carefully helped tend will be here for a long time yet.


  1. As an acequia mayordomo I must point out the social and philosophical implications of these old ditches. Presently, there is a movement from the original occupants of the South Valley (Atrisco) to restore these ditches to the original acequias that flowed everywhere through the Valley. Water rights are being reclaimed and laterals running through backyards are being restored, as greedy developers from out of state try and steal water from them to build their ridiculous Santolina mega-development. The people are strong and will eventually prevail, despite politicians that do not represent them in the least and only serve those greedy masters. Along with restoring the acequias, and even more important resource is again appearing. Culture and sustainable community divorced from rampant economic growth and centered on the real needs of the community and people. This will serve them well when the world gets hotter, water less plentiful, and the need to provide for themselves becomes more necessary.

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