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."
As my 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.
In 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.
At the 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 coherent manner.
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."
I’ve already 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 summer.
Laura Paskus is the Southwest editor for High Country News, and the mother of new baby Lillian Jane.