This year, I spent Christmas in Albuquerque lounging on my back porch, reading in a tank top and suffering a fool’s sunburn. Now, in late January, it’s sunny and in the mid-50s. And although two days ago, the local newspaper kept posting updates about a storm system heading into the state, here in the city, it snowed for about 10 minutes. The precipitation barely licked the dirt in our backyard, and I didn’t even bother inviting the dogs inside.
As a 10-year resident of
the Southwest, I should be used to this: Drought has been deepening
across the region for six years, and 2005 was the warmest year on
record. In mid-January, the New Mexico State Drought Monitoring
Committee released its updated map: The entire state is under a
drought advisory, with conditions across half the state ranging
from a "mild alert" to a "severe emergency."
husband and I plan for spring planting, we try to remember the last
time it really rained, as in "change the color of the ground" rain.
As in "we don’t have to water the tomatoes" rain. We
recollect a rainy Saturday in early October — just about the
time I attended the third annual Drought Summit in Albuquerque.
There, about 100 people in the audience listened to Dave
Gutzler, a meteorologist, point out that although we don’t
understand drought cycles, "we can’t assume they’re
going to go away." Kathy Jacobs, with the University of Arizona,
urged managers and officials to connect long-term planning to land
use. She warned: "Don’t set communities up for devastating
failure." Later, another scientist, Gregg Garfin, pointed out that
the area’s "projected population increases will increase our
vulnerability in the future."
Indeed, all of us in the
arid Southwest are vulnerable. And as lawmakers and businessmen
encourage growth without planning, without water conservation, they
are, in effect, setting communities up for failure.
Albuquerque, city officials distribute glossy pamphlets,
encouraging people to tear up their lawns and replace them with
decorative gravel and drought-tolerant native plants. But growth
continues unchecked — around 9,000 new residents each year,
each needing about 64,000 more gallons of water annually. And even
as the city seeks new water sources, its own leaky pipes waste
billions of gallons each year. On windy days, loose sands blow in
tawny clouds across the city’s West Side; the mesa’s
grasslands have been flattened to make way for faux adobe houses
ringing cul-de-sacs. As sand blasts the car windshield, commuters
fight their way through Los Angles-style rush hour traffic, always
complaining that there aren’t enough roads.
city’s center, the University of New Mexico has plans for a
long-overdue architecture building. But due to "budget
restrictions," its designer has eliminated the water-harvesting
system in his original plans. The irony is almost too much to bear:
This building is modeled partly on Chaco Canyon — whose
ancient inhabitants were likely wiped out by drought late in the
13th century — but those in charge deem water conservation
too costly during our own time of drought.
This fall, my
husband and I headed to the Florida Keys for one last hurrah before
our daughter was born. But after only a few days of lounging in the
cerulean water, and sea kayaking while surrounded by sharks, we
listened to local officials order an evacuation as Hurricane Wilma
bore down on the coast.
Forecasters were calling Wilma
the most intense hurricane ever to have developed in the Atlantic
Basin. Yet, only a month and a half after Katrina — another
beastly hurricane — vented her surly, sludgy wrath upon the
Gulf Coast, most people were reluctant to disrupt their plans and
routines. When my husband and I left the Keys, we drove on
near-empty highways and wondered if we’d overreacted. It
wasn’t until we were flying back to Albuquerque that I had
time to ponder the inability of today’s humans to take nature
seriously. As the plane banked along the Sandia Mountains and
dropped into the Rio Grande Valley, I looked down at the dry, dry
desert packed full of strip malls, suburbs and highways.
Few people took that approaching hurricane seriously; even fewer
bother to think about disasters that give us more than 48 hours of
warning. Hurricanes come and go quickly, and — usually
— it’s possible to rebuild. But drought weaves its way
into the warp and woof of a society over months and years and
decades. Although the end of available and drinkable water may seem
unimaginable, recovery from drought is what’s truly
unrealistic. And we seem unable to prepare for the future in any
Each day, I think about the drought
symposium, those climatologists, meteorologists and biologists
facing a near-empty auditorium, and I remember the words of Garfin,
the climatologist: "There has to be a willingness to reconsider
choices we have made … We must be able to cooperate, and be
flexible beyond our wildest dreams."
given up on all the bulbs and wildflower seeds I carefully planted
in November, back when I had faith that winter’s moisture
would nurture them. Now, as much as I’d like to see the green
shoots this spring, I refuse to drag out the hoses and watering
cans. It seems so unfair to encourage them with artificial
precipitation, then leave them vulnerable to the promised hot, dry