Hydrology Prof Publishes A Rio Grande History

SOCORRO, N.M. November 10, 2011 – Hydrology professor Dr. Fred Phillips recently published a comprehensive history of New Mexico’s signature geological feature, Reining in the Rio Grande: People, Land and Water.

The new book, published by the University of New Mexico Press, covers the entire spectrum of the history, geology, modern regulations and cultural impact of the Rio Grande.

 Dr. Fred Phillips
Co-author of Reining in the Rio Grande

“As a hydrologist, I’ve studied the Rio Grande for 30 years,” Phillips said. “Finally, I decided to put down the whole story that people need to know about the Rio Grande.”

While the book is mostly a scientific and historical examination of the river, Phillips finds the river to be a central part of the New Mexican identity – and important personally as well.

“Spiritually, when people think of New Mexico – or when you are away and come back home – you think of the cottonwoods, the Sandias, ‘M’ Mountain or the blue skies,” Phillips said. “The Rio Grande is deep within everyone’s self-conscious. The Rio Grande is emblematic of what New Mexico is. And it’s a precious resource.”

The book is listed at $34.95, but can be found on Amazon.com for $23 http://www.amazon.com/dp/0826349439/?tag=googhydr-20&hvadid=14280680267&ref=pd_sl_6iqf9gct46_b.

About six years ago, Phillips formed a writing team with G. Emlen Hall and Mary Black. Hall is an emeritus law professor at UNM and the foremost authority on water law in the Southwest. Black is an anthropologist at the University of Arizona and serves as a resource liaison between Arizona and the Native American tribes in the region.

John Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield Wars, wrote a review for the book’s back cover. Nichols called the book “a fascinating and perturbing story that brims over with rich details and oddball personalities … It is remarkable for such a concise book to be so thorough and illuminating, and also a lot of fun.”

Phillips and his co-authors open the book with a prologue focusing on Cochiti Pueblo and the cultural effect of the Cochiti Dam. “Reining in the Rio Grande has brought many benefits to those who live in its valley, but the benefits have come at a price,” they wrote. The prologue closes by stating that the book aims to explore “what is gained, what is lost and what possibilities remain for a desert river when a tide of civilization, history and technology sweeps over it.”

The first chapter is devoted to a geologic history of New Mexico and how the Rio Grande Rift formed. The basin formed roughly 10 million years ago in the headwaters, but didn’t connect with the southern portion of the river until about 2.5 million years ago. The Colorado portion of the river didn’t connect until about 500,000 years ago, when groundwater carved the dramatic Taos Gorge.

In Chapter II: Early Cultures, the authors summarize the various early human cultures that inhabited the Rio Grande Valley, including the first Paleoamericans about 12,000 years ago, the Cody people about 10,000 years ago and the Archaic people of about 8,000 years ago. The chapter also explains the advent of agriculture, irrigation and early efforts to engineer water resources.

Phillips' new book

“Before Spanish contact, human impacts on the river system were relatively small and short lived. … the river always prevailed and was undiminished.”

The Pueblo cultures revered the river as more than a resource. Katsina (or kachina) ceremonies developed in the 14th century and are still practiced today by the Hopi and Zuni pueblos. Katsinas are petitions from humans to summon rain and its benefits.

Black, the anthropologist, interviewed Hopi educator and linguist Emory Sekaquaptewa, who said that water is the most basic element of life in Hopi prayers.

Chapter II closes with this passage: “the Puebloan culture is hydrocentric, revolving around water, recognizing that all creatures and plants have an equal share in the living world only because of water. Mastery of water was never a goal.”

That would come to change. Chapter III: Newcomers to the Land chronicles the changes in water usage and the rise in acequias (networks of irrigation ditch) after the Spanish began to settle in the valley.

The next wave of settlers in the mid-1800s brought a new regime and a new level of stress on the river and the land. In the 1880’s, corporations began building “monster canals.” Overgrazing, over-harvesting of timber and the canal systems led to drastic environmental impacts. Soon thereafter, the U.S. Geological Survey responding with a scientific approach, quantifying the river – the volume of water, salinity and other characteristics.

Chapters IV through VII tell the tales of early efforts to control the river, including detailed accounts of the construction of Elephant Butte Dam in the 1910’s, the rise of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District in the 1920’s and the negotiations that led to the Rio Grande Compact in the 1930’s.

The authors devote plenty of space to interesting anecdotes about early survey crews battling the elements and obscure-yet-important historical personalities.

Phillips said the five-year research and writing effort revealed many facts and stories. The authors combed through mountains of documents in New Mexico libraries, including a treasure trove of scientific and engineering reports at the New Mexico Tech library.

While the book is researched and annotated as thoroughly as a textbook (the footnotes, bibliography and index total 47 pages), Reining in the Rio Grande reads like a novel, full of colorful details, interesting anecdotes and plot twists.

One of the most important and controversial figures in modern water resource history was Steve Reynolds, who served as state engineer from 1955 until his death in 1990. Reynolds was a lightning researcher at New Mexico Tech, working with then-president Dr. E.J. Workman, until Gov. John Simms tapped him to take the job once called “New Mexico’s water boss,” by the New York Times.

“Probably more than any other person, Reynolds is emblematic of the human forces that reined in the Rio Grande,” the authors wrote.

Reynolds changed the way New Mexico’s leaders think of water resources – even against their will. In 1956, he declared the Middle Rio Grande “a groundwater basin,” to be administered by the state engineer. Farmers and developers banded together to sue Reynolds. After seven years of legal battling, Reynolds won.

“Reynold’s victory was momentous. From now on, water law had to contend with the hydrological reality that surface water and groundwater are interconnected and that exploiting one will affect the other.”

Reynolds approached water issues like an engineer – logically and methodically. His largest task initially was to pay off New Mexico’s water debt to Texas. He seemed to be driven to manage the river to accommodate the legal requirements of the Compact. In doing so, he eventually lost touch with the groundswell of ecological concerns. In 1980, he was named the Earth Enemy of the Year.

In Chapter 9: Shifting Values, New Forces on the Rio Grande, Phillips chronicles the move to eradicate invasive species, protect endangered species and preserve the fragile ecosystems related to the river. Through the 1980’s and 90’s, the movement to restore riparian areas and manage ecosystems took on an organized feel.

The authors focus on the 1999 lawsuit to protect the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow and the impact of that decision. Throughout the book, the authors tell their tale with a high degree of impartiality and detachment. In a sidebar titled “Saltcedar: Scapegoat or Scoundrel?”, they present conflicting studies about the invasive tree.

The book closes with a look at “The Future of an Old  River,” where the authors raise more questions than they answer. They open the final chapter with a question: “Is the river a river or a conduit for a liquid commodity?” As Nichols insinuated in his comments, the book equally a lament for a lost beauty and an ode to a natural wonder.

He wrote that, “Though the river’s history is complex and baffling, this book makes it lucid, coherent and very exciting.” Nichols also calls the book “an energetic and priceless primer on the development of the Rio Grande from pre-Columbian times to the very uncertain present day.”

The book ends with this: “The challenge of tomorrow is achieving peace with a river that both nature and humans can abide.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech