Hidden Waters resurfaces

  These days, Charles Bowden is known as a grizzled, pistol-packing scout of the Southwest’s dark side, a man who chronicles the lives and deaths of the border’s most infamous drug runners. A quarter century ago, however, Bowden wrote an unpretentious book, Killing the Hidden Waters, that was equal parts ethnography, mysticism, hydrology and thermodynamics.

That book is back, with a new introduction by Bowden, and it deserves a wide reading. Hidden Waters dives into the world of the Sonoran Desert’s Papago Indians, premier desert dwellers who built their society on ak chin agriculture, planting seeds in floodplains to take advantage of the rare flood, which provided just enough water to coax a crop from the desert. Communal sharing was, for centuries, the only thing that smoothed out the feasts and famines and staved off disaster.

But in the 1930s, the Anglos who moved into the desert brought along a little device called the centrifugal pump, which suddenly put the Sonoran Desert’s groundwater within reach. That, argues Bowden, changed the Papago world.

"Floodwater farming, once the psychic key to sharing, is almost gone," he writes. "Water shortages were the glue that had held their societies together. The well undercut the reason for the group."

It might not seem like such a bad thing to have your society fall apart, if drought was the thing that held it together. But a sudden dependence on desert groundwater transformed the Papago from a culture that lived in balance with water to one that mines water faster than it can be replenished.

"I still believe that in the end," writes Bowden in the new introduction, "resource problems are cultural, and the only real answers must come from within cultures, not simply from finding more resources. Giving some new source of water to a city in the American West, for example, is akin to sending a case of whisky to an alcoholic."

Killing the Hidden Waters By Charles Bowden 206 pages, softcover, $17.95. University of Texas Press, 2004.
High Country News Classifieds
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...