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Know the West

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.