“sad havoc” – what happens when you build a city in a flood plain

A vibrant nighttime scene featuring a colorful mural on a wall. The mural depicts three stylized faces with abstract designs in rainbow colors. In the foreground, a wet surface reflects the mural's colors, creating a kaleidoscopic effect. Spotlights illuminate the mural, and a table is visible in the foreground.

Flooding in downtown Albuquerque, June 29, 2024. Photo by Roberto Rosales, City Desk ABQ, used with permission, licensed under Creative Commons

This remarkable image by Roberto Rosales, my former Albuquerque Journal colleague now taking pictures for City Desk ABQ, captures a sharp reality of Albuquerque. We built our city in a flood plain, and in particular downtown beginning in the 1880s in a low area that was part Rio Grande flood path, and part swamp.

That most erratic of streams

Here’s how Bob Berrens and I describe it in Ribbons of Green, the book we’re writing about Albuquerque’s relationship with the Rio Grande:

Albuquerque’s broad, flat valley was vulnerable to the Rio Grande long before the railroad arrived. With no levees, the river caused “sad havoc” in the valley lands around Albuquerque, in the words of a correspondent known in the manner of the day simply as “H.R.W.” “That most erratic of erratic streams – the Rio Grande – has been doing unspeakable damage in this county lately,” H.R.W. wrote in an Aug. 5, 1868 dispatch published in the Santa Fe New Mexican. In July, the river’s flood waters had destroyed the church in Corrales, a village 14 miles upstream.  By August, it had spread beyond the banks both east and west of the river downstream from Albuquerque, destroying the homes of, among others, Jesus Barela, a likely descendant of the namesake founding family of the community still known as “Barelas.”

The place our forbears chose for a new downtown when the railroad arrived in 1880 was particularly vulnerable, at the downstream end of a secondary path for the river in high main channel flows, which was also vulnerable to inflows from the heights during our storied summer thunderstorms.

With dams and levees to manage the main channel, drains to lower the water table across the valley floor, and a robust network of concrete-line arroyos to safely channel away most of the summer thunderstorm action, the risks are far less than H.R.W.’s 1868 “sad havoc”. But our Sunday morning bike ride showed havoc nevertheless. Left to gravity, rain that falls on the inner valley – close to two inches Saturday night – has no place to go.

Pumping out downtown

In Barelas, we saw a massive storm sewer cover blown out by the force of water surging up from below. The ballfields by the zoo, built below grade to catch and hold storm water until it can be pumped away, look to have filled up to five or six feet (~2 meters) deep.

Here’s the Downtown Albuquerque News explanation of the lay of the land:

Turns out the area between roughly Broadway – the base of the hill that leads up to UNM – and the river is essentially flat. In fact, historically speaking, it may as well be the river bed. Before the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District took steps (beginning about 100 years ago) to keep the river in what we now think of as its “natural” place, it moved and meandered all over what we know today as Greater Downtown, creating all sorts of wetlands in the process. Get in a time machine and go back to the Civil War era, and the river might have been flowing through what is now Fourth Street. Go back another 50 or 100 years before that and it could have been using a completely different channel. Or two channels. During floods, it could get even more unruly, as with one in the 1790s that washed away much of the first incarnation of San Felipe de Neri in Old Town.

The water needs help to get to the narrow channel between the levees where we have confined the Rio Grande, in the form of massive banks of pumps.

This is a crucial piece of the deep theme Bob and I explore in the new book, scheduled for publication in 2025. Rivers and their cities live in an uneasy embrace, each shaping the other’s movements, neither really in charge.

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Thanks to Inkstain’s supporters for helping keep the lights on. Also, thanks to the other journalists out there hustling business models to keep the information flowing, in this case City Desk ABQ and the Downtown Albuquerque News.

One Comment

  1. Ah! The vicissitudes of a variable precipitation pattern. Who says we are in a drought? I have been living in the Old Town area for 52 years and have never witnessed the deluge as the one Saturday night. Sheets of rain that made a home blurry 75 feet away.

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