Connect-the-Dots: Following the Unnatural Path of Water from the South San Juan Mountains to Albuquerque
By Stacy Boone
Growing up meant worm farms, roly-polies in a jar with dirt mined from the garden and smashed lightning bugs on my t-shirt as day wrestled with evening. I turned over rocks to find hidden crawdads in water drainages and hopped after toads accidentally kicked out of a molt of leaves. I was raised in an era when a child’s mode of travel was a bike and shoes were of the “tennis shoe” variety. I was left to wander in an Arkansas subdivision with no sidewalks but wood lots and forest that neighbored in safe proximity to lawns. I rarely strayed far from an oversized circle radius of seven or eight blocks. Well, maybe more if I thought I might not be caught. My friends and I made a point to check-in at whoever’s house was closest at lunch where we were fed and promptly pushed back outside with a gesture to, “Go Play.”
In the wild, I waded in creeks, scaled trees, rushed into high grasses and drank with scooped hands most any clear water source when thirsty. I scraped my knees. My legs bumped and itched with chigger bites. Bruised was an unworried part of play. Outside was education laid bare. Unwittingly, day-to-day outdoor activities were experiments of how the natural world worked. I researched before I understood the concepts that involved a created hypothesis or abidance to a system of methods. I examined without formality through a hands-on studied approach. Without the scientific methodology, I knew that tadpoles became frogs, water moved downstream and branch buds turned to leaves. Intuitively, I expected a repetition of nature’s routines.
When inside, which generally meant bad weather days, I might be found with a pencil in hand working through connect-the-dots pages. I followed numbered dots in sequential order to connect arbitrary straight lines. My box of Crayola crayons was always nearby and in sufficient supply to give the straight edge animal or flower color. I loved to color and a limitation of eight crayons taught a color wheel of creativity because two crayons were ample to shade a new hue.
Flash forwards several decades and my color box improved to embody the shades of outside more keenly. Sometimes the complex pigments matched those named in the crayon box. And other times, the name given to a color was a shallow description. While my awareness of nature’s colors expanded so did my awareness that her edges were rarely straight and tidy like connect-the-dots workbook pages. Nature preferred geometric shapes I learned in elementary school – circles, squares, triangles, hexagons, rectangles, stars and also cones, spheres and prisms. Contours, too, a shape but maybe more of a squiggle. Nature favored concinnity – jagged to smooth, sweeping to compact, flushing to flowing. Over time, I grew cognizant that humans favored straight lines. Direct routes to reach end points or to reach an intended result. Straight lines like those in a connect-the-dots workbook are a remedial form of categorizing the world. Simplicity that erased nature’s brilliance. Humans, I have learned, prefer connections to be easy and free of effort.
It was a passing unrelated conversation about something I no longer remember when I heard that a portion of the waters from Colorado’s South San Juan Mountains was promised to Albuquerque, New Mexico. The big city mostly a straight shot south of Pagosa Springs, a small (then) community where I lived. But it would be a decade before that tidbit of information resurfaced to pique my curiosity and timed with a locally, nonsensical planned water project by our water and sanitation district. Water was getting a lot of newspaper ink. Also, it was our second summer of limited rainfall, smokey skies from complex fires and red sand that blew from the Utah desert and coated like dust on any exposed surface. I looked upwards to the below average snowpack residents relied upon and understood that others, too, wanted the water. But how did water from the western side of the continental divide get to Albuquerque?
As a backpacking guide for twenty years, I knew a lot about the sources of water in the high country. I led hikes and filled water bottles on the mesa where snow thawed and followed age-old paths as it careened downhill to beige flats. Summer progressed, tarns dried to the bottom, and water still reached a community of half-a-million people – possible because of a little-known effort called the San Juan-Chama Project1San Juan-Chama Project (US Bureau of Reclamation) https://www.usbr.gov/projects/index.php?id=521. A plan to develop ultimately delivered precious droplets to a desert community because President John F. Kennedy signed Public Law 87-4832Public Law 87-483 https://www.congress.gov/87/statute/STATUTE-76/STATUTE-76-Pg96.pdf, an amendment to the 1956 Colorado River Storage Act3Colorado River Storage Project (US Bureau of Reclamation)
https://www.usbr.gov/uc/rm/crsp/index.html on June 13, 1962.
I learned that the water from my favorite high-country lake would be delivered to Albuquerque in a week’s time. Water traveled from point-to-point. Those were the places I sought to straddle, to dip a toe, to touch or taste, to stare or wonder or investigate. There were places I had visited before, but many I had not. The earnest purpose of my research required me to connect-the-dots.
But here was the problem, I was not a water droplet, and I was unable to flow the exact route water followed. Could I track the descent in a more abstract way, as a series of puzzle pieces that could be matched to the arrival of water droplets? To answer the question, I examined maps and set the perimeters of my exploration. Wanting to assure my findings could not be disputed, I knew I had to rely on not only my first-hand knowledge from being a guide, and hiking to headwaters in the places that water flowed from but also to visit as many contact points as possible. I could connect-the-dots.
With an inventory of places in hand, I made another trip to my favorite high-country lake.
Journal Entry Early Summer - Fish Lake I reach her as the sun crosses its high point and provides no shade. I know her water cuts with cold. To sink into her depths would feel like a violation of her purity, so, I don’t. Instead, I move to her edge and stare into her depth. Glittery waves force me to move my hat lower to darken my circle of vision to catalog a list of details. Initially just a single pebble at the border with its swirl of black and white. Next, a stalk of flower, then the movement of droplets washing the pebbles with each lap. I cup a palmful of her water, a consoling touch to my rough, weather creased hands that remind me of the same joy felt with a new set of fleece mittens on a chilly evening. Then I peer to the outlet. Fish’s border is a traitorous bulge, a fierce conglomeration of rock with pimples and blisters, crooked teeth and the broken cliff resembles a nose. It mocks a welcome with its gap-toothed smile as it funnels life of this lake out of her ringed womb of safety.
Too few know where water to hydrate Albuquerque is delivered from, and I want more people to know. Water is delivered by tunnels, from mountain headwaters. An accumulation of water droplets. A lot of droplets. Five thousand of them to fill one eight-ounce cup. Land development and water policy run parallel to economic advantage. There are too many disadvantaged communities that confront daily a limit to water access, including many that live near the banks of flowing waters.
Research for this project required I drive from point-to-point, its own connect-the-dots. In many places I drove to an access, then walked wearing boots with sturdy Vibram soles that left imprints on the ground. I walked with hiking poles and carried a day pack with all the essentials in case I researched longer than planned. I drove and trekked with determination. Not just simply to dip a toe or hand but to fill a reservoir of blank spaces. I believed that maybe with wisdom I could educate and inform. Perhaps guide a conversation about water as a resource.
As my arrival to places mounted, I realized my years as a backpacking guide played a role in both awareness of change but respect in the value of land and water as a consumable but limited resource. I thought about the hours I spent talking about water that filled client bottles, was used to prepare soup for dinner or rinsed a rag to wash a gritty face. We did not take more than we needed. We valued what we found, we respected sources for not just our use but others who would need and the animals that relied on its existence.
I drove a jeep – a good jeep. One with big tires and a removable top. It hummed down the interstate and rocked side-to-side with a stormy violence when on rough roads. In time, I traded that jeep for a truck with great suspension. The truck regularly toted dogs with their heads leaning out of the back seat windows. Rarely on paved roads, rural communities having few paved roads, it accumulated dust, a cracked windshield and an undercarriage of rock dings. Once I rented Nissan Rogue. When the rental agent handed me the key, he did not ask where I was going or tell me the fancy sport utility vehicle had barely crested one hundred miles. Though handsome, dent free and the interior still polished to a shine, it sluggishly attacked hills, hesitated in sand and slid precariously in the curves of loose gravel roads. I drove that Rogue almost a thousand miles and never figured out the cruise control. I returned it sand-stained, with a wet spot in the back where my cooler leaked and a yogurt smear on the passenger seat from my spoon that pitched out of the container on one of the loose gravel turns.
I traveled interstate, county roads, rural roads, forest roads, cracked pavement. I followed faded yellow lines, new painted lines and white lines so scratched it was hard to know where the road edge began or ended. Gravel roads ranged from packed to rock zinging. Dusted roads a continuum of well-traveled and hardly traveled, mostly abandoned, soon to be abandoned and one or two that gave a real stressful feeling to my clenched butt cheeks. Those tense moments when I leaned over the steering wheel and looked past the hood to find a demarcated emptiness where there was no place to turn around. It is okay if I never travel those particular roads again. Dirt roads that were smooth’ish, rutted, wash-boarded, littered with fallen rock or of the red clay variety that was dangerous to follow if skies feigned an idea of rain. Travel rights-of-way pinned between natural gas pipelines, electrical towers that riveted sounds of power passing overhead, arroyos so deep they had their own name, washes only dirt bikes should attempt or canyons that reached a rock fall or scoured edge that ended any chance of furtherance.
In between the dots were Engelmann spruce, ponderosa pine, pinon pine, gambel oak, juniper, big sage brush, dry grasses – some tall, some short – cholla and prickly pear cactus and flowers with soft petals. Miles and miles of barbed wire fence, unmapped two tracks that went somewhere but I do not know where. Forgotten parcels of public lands with faint lanes or maybe trails or maybe animal paths best traveled on foot and shifting soils that altered time and distance and other soils that did not move and made foot travel fast.
In vast open spaces a canopy of cottonwood trees intimated water. Always my eye was looking for the thick alligator gray skin of those water-hogging trees.
There were signs of caution – do not enter after rain, this area prone to flash flooding, get out of the area when the horn sounds, put vehicle in park before unloading boat, bright yellow elk crossing rectangles and stick figures depicted as falling off cliffs.
There were do not stop here signs – the bridge, the side of the road or near the gate.
There were do not park here signs – vegetation restoration, private driveways and entrances to publicly owned lands with access discouraged by a gate.
There were signs that warned – do not loiter, do not swim, do not step on the rock ledge, do not climb, do not create a wake, do not leave your trash and do not be here between the hours of sunset and sunrise.
There were pull offs – for slow vehicles, upcoming traffic on narrow one lane red sand dirt roads, bicycle routes and turns in highways where the sightline is miles long.
There were no trespassing signs – don’t cross over the barbed wire fence or chain link fence with wired top, onto private property belonging to absentee landowners, dam inlets or outlets, the platforms or buildings of diversion features or the back forty of the facility that constructed the atomic bomb dropped as a part of the Manhattan Project.
There were boundary marker signs – hemmed with dark orange, printed with bold black lettering, nailed on a fence post or tree, border signs perched on two metal poles along the highway or between or amongst a sliver of space managed by two different government agencies.
Most signs evidenced gun shot.
There were wash outs so grand they were scarred with rolling rocks on the edges and a tangle of tree limbs that rose over my head. Sand so light it coated shins, itched eyes, filled throats, painted lashes an albino hue, and applied to sunglasses and eyeglasses a layer of dirt so fine its build up slowly limited the depth of perception as the day progressed.
Between all the signs and pullouts and trail heads and sprints across private property and boundaries constricted by exclusivity, was water. Or past signs of water. Nowhere existed signs (of the manufactured on a post variety) with a warning – less snowfall equals less water or overuse is a consequence for downstream partners or pollution is not dilution. Except everywhere was evidence in an uneasy natural testament of change – high-water lines in reservoirs excavated to hold water, grasses that tightened banks and irrigation ditches full of tumbleweed.
Following the waters of the San Juan-Chama Project morphed and molded itself in all those places where I could stand next to the nomadic waters and in places I tried to reach or explore but found access blocked. I ran over one rattlesnake and that made me sad. I talked to bovine in a hurry, asked bovine to STOP running because it stirred up the fine dust and appreciated other bovines that were simply content to chew and watch. I pushed away an insistent donkey who thought she should eat my hat, tracked the prints of cougar, bear, elk, deer and dung beetles and ducked from diving hawks. I apologized to chiding birds tucked in willow for my violation of their space and mimicked push-up lizards because how could I not. How I never found myself resting on the side of a road with a tire iron in hand to change a tire with a puncture hole by an overly sharp rock is a testament to either excellent driving or luck. I prefer to think excellent driving. There was that one incident when my tires, coated in exceedingly fresh green cow shit, flung shit into my open window when accelerating. That was in the rental car. I do not remember the name of the government representative man who listened with a glazed look about what I researched, the question that needed an answer with boots on the ground and told me to walk until the landowner saw me. Then, he said, “Apologize by saying you did not know you had followed the creek onto private property.” I also do not recollect the name of the man I spoke with while standing in the middle of Acequia Madre Road, near Upper Canyon Road in Santa Fe to talk about water. I do remember the name of the gal who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers excited about my research but of little helpful knowledge. I lost count of the times I waved and made sure my face was clearly seen in the cameras situated to keep places safe from prying eyes like mine, but I have no doubt someone did keep count.
The water route I followed traveled approximately 250 miles. Droplets navigated from lush land, mostly green, to land desperate in its shades of brown. Access to San Juan-Chama Project waters required more than standing over the gapped tooth smile on the western side of Fish Lake where this story began. A place I visited for a decade. The place where I once sat unworried about water, ignorant of where it flowed to and carefree when I drank directly from her bounty. My final travel stop south of Albuquerque was at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a jewel surrounded by contrast.
I doubled the water’s travel distance with hikes that shadowed its pathway. I lost count of how many miles I drove. My boots were either saturated or dusty dry. I ruined socks with prickers that left tiny holes in my feet. Ripped the material of pants, skirts and shorts from slides, falls and shimmies. Lacerated, bruised and scratched hands, legs and my buttocks, more than once. I almost always wore a hat and favored my cowboy hats, never wore enough sunscreen but always had enough water. I filled lots of bottles of water.
High country trickles fed Fish Lake in a time-honored pattern of repetition – sky to surface, surface to ground, surface to sky. From there, water descended slopes and well-worn paths to its first dammed diversion, a coarse plug that walled off natural flow and forced unequal portions of droplets left or right. Water forced left followed a trail of unnatural construction – miles of tunnels, multiple diversions and holding reservoirs dug deep into the desert sand to second river system. I followed waters that gathered and changed names.
Once Fish Lake rose and water crossed the rocky gap, the water became Fish Creek. Fish Creek then the Rio Blanco, then Willow Creek, then the Rio Chama that merged into the Rio Grande which arrived in the bustling city of Albuquerque. The Rio Grande does not always reach the southern side of this desert city, rarely still to its native terminus. We suck it dry long before that boundary.
In places, I let droplets accumulate in my cupped hands to quench my tightened throat. It filled my thirsty belly. But it was only a short distance that I drank directly from the source, those first twelve miles before the dam diverted into a dark twenty-eight-mile tunnel. Thereafter, I would not partake without the aid of a water filter.
Near the conclusion of connect-the-dots, I watched the early season rush of snowmelt along the Paseo del Bosque Trail. I knew so much more than I wanted to know about how our landscape is changed and the impact that had on water. I wondered how I could persuade people to my point of view, to my understanding that we must value water, we cannot live without it. And though individual water droplets are voiceless, their silence does not invalidate the truth that water, as our most precious valuable resource, is endangered.
I know droplets of water are destined for other places. Are they enough to fill empty cups?
Research says for now.
But for how long?
That depends on human consumption.
About the Author
Stacy Boone is a Triple Crown award backpacker, twenty-year hiking guide and writer. Mostly she writes about water. Almost always she writes about nature. Usually, with an educational slant she hopes inspires others to look at the landscape and be drawn into its emotional lessons. She wants readers to think, to be inspired to action in a landscape that is radically changing.
She lives four miles from the Canadian border in Vermont. A New England returnee after living in southwest Colorado for a decade. She lives with her husband, two rescue dogs, and a flock of ducks and chickens. When not writing she can be found tending the garden or sitting on the front porch where she spends many evenings watching the sunset.
An MFA graduate from Southern New Hampshire University, her most recent story was published in Appalachia Journal.
Following Up: A Downstream Trace From Fish Lake
Based on the contents of this narrative, we took the opportunity to use the USGS Streamer app to create a downstream trace and report from Fish Lake to the Colorado River into Mexico.