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Journey to the bottom of Navajo Lake

  José “Ed” Marquez, 67, squints into the late afternoon sunlight, scanning what remains of Navajo Reservoir. “When they started filling the lake in 1961, I couldn’t imagine that this town I’d grown up in would soon be under water,” he says, waving his hand over the miles of dried and cracked mud now taking the place of the receding lake. “Now that you can see some of the foundations again, I can’t imagine that this was where I grew up.”

Navajo Dam, which spreads across the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico, was one among many that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built as part of the Colorado River Storage Project. The other dams include Glen Canyon Dam on the mainstem Colorado, Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green, and the Curecanti dams on the Gunnison River. The project was designed to deliver a consistent supply of water to the Lower Colorado River Basin each year, while creating dependable water sources for cities, farms and recreation.

But engineers didn’t plan on the long-term drought that’s currently affecting the Southwest. This spring, river flows across the Four Corners were between 40 and 60 percent of average, and Navajo Reservoir is now at two-thirds its usual capacity. All the reservoirs in the Project are holding less than they have in years. The continuing drought has already prompted New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to declare a state of emergency, and Arizona and Utah may not be far behind.

But the drought is also unveiling a slice of the past. To build Navajo Dam, the federal government moved, buried, burned or simply flooded some 85 structures in the towns of Rosa and Los Arboles — supposedly forever. Now, the bones of Los Arboles have begun to reappear.

Marquez, a stout man with a tanned face, white hair and lively eyes, walks past the rock foundations of the church and school. He pushes the toe of his black work boot into a pile of glass. “Every time you see glass like this — clear window glass — that was a house. There were a lot of homes here. And we had corrals down there by the train depot. That’s where we shipped out all the cows and sheep.”

The lip of Navajo Lake is a fifteen-minute hike away. As for Rosa, which is at a slightly lower elevation, it may be only a matter of time before its skeletons reappear.

The people of Rosa and Los Arboles were predominantly of Spanish descent. Marquez says his great-grandfather came to Rosa from Colorado’s San Luis Valley around 1860. The federal government had promised homesteaders fairly large tracts of land, and Rosa and Los Arboles each supported about 40 farm families.

The narrow-gauge railroad, which still runs from Durango to Silverton in the San Juan Mountains north of here, used to tie Los Arboles to the two towns. The stores here were stocked with sugar, coffee, and various essentials for canning — a necessity in the days before refrigeration. People came on horseback from nearby towns to buy food and supplies, as well as shoes and clothing. The towns were also known for their moonshine.

People came to Rosa and Los Arboles to celebrate. Almost every church in the area honored a different saint, and every saint had its own festival. “Everybody would come to the Santa Rosa Festival in August,” says Marquez. “They would go to the dance, drink and get into big fights.”

Then, around 1958, officials with the Bureau of Reclamation started showing up. “They came to us and said they were going to buy our land,” says Marquez. “If you refused to sell, they would just condemn your place and tear it down anyway. They bought you out, gave you so much time, and you had to pack up your little rags and leave.”

Some residents hired a man from Farmington to load their houses onto trailers, then drive them, one-by-one, down the road into nearby towns such as Allison, Ignacio and what’s now called “New Arboles.”

“I had an old Ford truck,” says Marquez. “I guess I was too busy moving my family’s house. I kept thinking, ‘I better go get my truck.’ By the time I did, it was buried. They’d bulldozed over it to prepare for the lake.”

After examining a few mountain lion prints in the crusty dirt, we climb into Marquez’s diesel pickup truck — the latest replacement for the truck he lost to the reservoir. We bounce across the barren lakebed, an occasional tumbleweed blowing up over the truck’s hood. It’s hard to imagine that, in an ordinary year, motor boats would be churning the lake water somewhere above our heads.

Marquez stops his truck, gets out and walks to the cement abutment of an old bridge overhanging the San Juan River. “Here,” he says. “This is where my great-grandmother died.” He explains that, before the bridge, people used to cross the river in horsedrawn wagons. His great-grandmother and her family were crossing the river, on their way to the market, when a flash flood crashed through and overturned their wagon.

“My great-grandpa and my grandfather got out. This guy on horseback, coming from Pagosa Junction, he got a lot of the kids out. But my great-grandmother, and the two littlest girls, who were too small to swim, they drowned,” he says. “One of the girls who was saved, she later married the guy on horseback.”

Marquez’s great-grandmother’s grave is still beneath Navajo Lake, along with the rest of the old cemetery. The San Juan River, where his great-grandmother drowned, once again meanders through the valley. But now it slithers past, muddy, slow and unthreatening — except in the ominous way that it is dwindling, day by day. And there is nothing engineers can do about that. In the end, it seems, the Bureau of Reclamation has about as much control over the ebb and flow of this desert river as Marquez’s great-grandmother did.

Marquez falls silent. His family and neighbors have long since packed up their “little rags” and left. Yet here on the parched lakebed, one can almost hear the lively voices of Rosa and Los Arboles blowing through the valley.

The author writes from Durango, Colorado.