When climate change hits home

Northern New Mexicans weigh their future in a drying climate.


As drought settles with semi-permanence in the Southwest, residents of varying backgrounds struggle with the decision to stay or go. 

Stefan Wachs

Don Bustos

Don Bustos farms the same Española Valley land his ancestors did 400 years ago. Water is delivered via acequia, a traditional ditch system managed by a collective of irrigators. “The whole community lives or dies by the decisions made along the acequia,” Bustos says. “They’re the first form of democracy in the U.S.”

Bustos’ farm is doing OK this year, but he’s concerned about the future.
“I don’t think all agriculture is going to survive climate change in the Southwest,” he says. “We’re going to have to really articulate the reasons water has to stay in agriculture.” Bustos believes growing your own food is “an act of freedom,” and essential to long-term resilience. Plus, northern New Mexico would be a fundamentally different place without farming and acequias. “We can make more money building houses,” he says, but what if the cost is culture? “If we lose that, we just become another Dubai in the middle of the desert.”

Stefan Wachs

Claudia Borchert

Claudia Borchert grew up in hilly, green eastern Kansas. She’s lived in Santa Fe for 30 years, and has worked on water issues for the city and county for over a decade. Santa Fe is not in imminent danger of running out of water, she says. Nevertheless, “I’m likely to become a climate migrant. Four months of no rain just doesn’t suit me.”

Borchert served on a recent working group to advise the mayor on sustainability issues. Thanks to recent changes in its water supply and management, the city doesn’t have to impose water restrictions on users this year. But the group has proposed implementing additional conservation measures and water restrictions during drought anyway, to satisfy the strong local desire for action. “There was a feeling of, we want to worry about it, we want to do something,” she says. “People want to take some personal responsibility.”

Stefan Wachs

Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. J. Michael Chavarria

The Santa Clara Pueblo Reservation runs from the Rio Grande to the Jemez Mountains. Recent wildfires have burned 80 percent of the forest there, putting the tribe’s watershed at risk and transforming its ancestral landscape.

In adversity, the tribe has looked to its past and the power of prayer for guidance. “We’ve lived here and been resilient to change over time,” says the pueblo’s governor, J. Michael Chavarria. Take first contact with the Spanish in the 1500s. “They hurt our women, they killed our children, they killed our traditional leaders. They told us, ‘If you don’t convert to Christianity, you’re … basically nothing.’ So our religion, the culture, went underground. But we kept strong, and we’re here today.”

Now, the people are investing in forest restoration. “We can’t just pack up our bags and leave,” Chavarria says. “The whole reservation is considered a place of worship, a spiritual sanctuary. So it goes back to remembering who we are, and where we come from — and not to give up.”

Stefan Wachs

Tom Swetnam

University of Arizona fire ecologist Tom Swetnam and his wife, Suzanne, recently retired to forestland outside Jemez Springs. This is Tom’s home turf, and it’s near the site of one of the Southwest’s most serious recent blazes — the 2011 Las Conchas Fire, which he and his colleagues believe foretells the bigger, hotter burns to come. “When I first bought this place, several of my friends in the fire science community said, ‘You bought where?’ ” he recalls. “The reality is we could lose this place tomorrow.”

But Swetnam doesn’t buy the argument that people shouldn’t live in the forest. “These landscapes have been livable in the past, and we can get there again,” he says, by allowing certain fires to burn and thinning overgrown stands. For him, it’s a landscape of hope more than fear, with one caveat: If warming spikes by 4 or 8 degrees Celsius — around 7 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit — “I don’t know where is safe.”

Stefan Wachs

Marilyn & Ed Winter-Tamkin

For years, Marilyn and Ed Winter-Tamkin talked with friends about leaving Santa Fe. They worried about water scarcity, fire and toxic waste from Los Alamos National Lab’s nuclear research. Then came severe fires around Los Alamos and the widespread death of the state’s piñon trees. In 2013, the Winter-Tamkins sold their house and moved to Bellingham, Washington.

But they were homesick for their friends and community, and a year ago, the couple moved back. “I’ve heard it said that when you leave here, they tie a rubber band to your leg, and at some point, they snap it back,” Ed says. “This is our place.

“Every place has their problem,” adds Marilyn. “In Bellingham, we were at the base of a volcano. We know what the pimples are here — it’s the poisons from Los Alamos and the drought. We’d rather go down with those issues with our friends, our community and near our family.”

Stefan Wachs

Luis Torres

Luis Torres grew up on a subsistence ranch in northern New Mexico, a place his seven brothers hoped to escape. But Torres loved his home mountains, and with only a high school degree, leaving never seemed an option. When he was young, working for a time on Forest Service wildfire crews, all he needed was a horse and a chainsaw to earn money. Now, he’s a community organizer for environmental groups, who hire him for his knowledge of place.

Torres lived through a deep drought in the 1950s, but this one feels different. “I look at hillsides where whole piñon ecosystems die. When we get rain again, something’ll come back, but not those trees.” And he worries about his grandson, who wants to follow in his wildfire-fighting footsteps. “I say, ‘Stay away from that,’ ” Torres explains. “From what I see, it ain’t your grandfather’s old fire. It’s more dangerous. These are explosive, bomb-type fires.” (Luis Torres is a High Country News board member.)

Stefan Wachs

Lesli Allison

Lesli Allison’s mother lives alone in Allison’s childhood home near Pecos, New Mexico, in a  canyon with a high risk of fire. Growing up, “we never worried about fire,” Allison says, “but now I fear for her safety.” Allison’s own home is vulnerable, too, and she worries about her son when he’s home alone because a fire could block the exits to their rural subdivision.

Allison is a former rancher who now works on private-land conservation. “I sometimes dream of buying a small farm in some other part of the country with good topsoil and moisture,” she says, “just to have the feeling that I could grow food and not worry about water or forest fires.” But New Mexico is home. It would take a lot for her family to leave, she says. “Sometimes I imagine that if water shortages end up driving other people away, there would be enough water for those of us stubborn enough to stay.” 

Read Cally Carswell’s feature exploring how climate change is altering her relationship with a place she loves.

Contributing editor Cally Carswell writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

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