Thirsty River

Editor’s note: This is a chapter from, and provided the conceptual impetus for, the recently released book, “The Return of the River: Writers, Scholars, and Citizens Speak on Behalf of the Santa Fe River” (Sunstone Press), which Ms. Bello edited.

Every evening when the light turns golden and the Sangres glow red, my husband and I make our way to the Santa Fe River. The dry course we follow is a bed of sand and rock between high, eroded banks. We watch the clouds, pay attention as the trees drop and regain their leaves, notice the patterns left in the sand by wind and intermittent water. We come in all weathers and all moods, sharing the triumphs and challenges of our day or simply walking in silence. The river is our tonic, an open space curative that offers rejuvenation day after day. As the wheel of seasons turns, I grasp that this channel contains not water but the flow of our lives.

In the heart of winter, Elliot and I are often the only people out at sunset, but as the weather warms and days lengthen, we begin to see our neighbors. Even on the finest days, however, we see no more than a handful of people, a few dogs sniffing the sand.

“Why aren’t there more people here?” I ask Elliot one day. It seems strange that in a town full of nature lovers, this open space corridor is often abandoned.

“Maybe they don’t realize this is the river,” he says. “They forgot.”

Once upon a time, this river flowed like any other in northern New Mexico. It meandered down out of the mountains along a sandy-bottomed, ground-level bed surrounded by willows, cottonwoods, farms and meadows. As I walk the deep gash that is so easy to mistake for an impressive arroyo, I try to imagine what it once looked like. I can barely see it.

Gone are the native plants, the animals and fish that once thrived here. Denied water, the river’s bed of sand has grown lifeless, its banks fallen in. The near horizon opens on barren fields. Fields where food was once grown, irrigated by arterial acequias. Those fields are called lots now, and everyone knows it won’t be long until houses grow out of them.

After a half-mile or so of walking, the few cottonwoods and elm trees that grow along the path fade into grey-green chamisa and dried grasses. My friend Sarah won’t walk this section of the river.

“It’s too brown and dry,” she says. “And so depressing.” This is where the junk cars start to rise out of the brown earth, and the cholla cactus grows thick as weeds. I have heard things like this before. Newcomers say, “I miss the ocean, trees, rain.” They say, “You call this a river?”

I don’t mean it to be, but my voice is sharp when I remind Sarah that the river is dry because we drink it.

One evening in March, Elliot and I abandon the river and walk up a ridge overlooking Santa Fe. The sun has just set, leaving a band of orange along the horizon.

“Where does the water for so many houses come from?” Elliot asks. “It should be sand running from these taps, not water.”

I scan the dusk-washed land. Junipers are sprinkled over a sea of dried grass. The piñons are gone, dead from the long drought we’ve been in. Lights shimmer in the black expanse stretching before us, blocks of light following the highway south. If there is enough water for all of these homes, how can there not be enough for the river?

Wherever the water comes from, too much is being asked of this land and too little is given back. The river that has supported settlements in this valley for over a thousand years no longer flows. It is a bed of sand. And the city grows, and grows, and grows.

As the days turn warm, the river begins to run with snowmelt. Muddy. Frothing. Roiling with the trash that has lain unwashed all winter. Foam swirls against concrete, against rock, against sandy riverbank.

Elliot and I squat side by side and watch the torrent. There’s no crossing it tonight. The water splashes up against us, cold. If this river’s singing, the song is a dirty one, the kind that pours from a downtown bar late on a Tuesday night. The river has reclaimed its channel, liberated by reinforcements of melted snow in the war against containment. It is like a prisoner whose face twists with anger, sadness and relief when finally freed. A prisoner who runs away as quickly and violently as he can.

The water level changes slightly each day, leaving behind dark, wet spots in the muddy banks. Prints from people, dogs and birds spatter across the damp sand. The metal caging that was supposed to protect the banks from erosion hangs empty. Tree roots caught in the wire mesh are all that remains of the soil they grew out of. Elsewhere, the path has literally fallen into the river. A new one runs through the cactus a bit farther from the river.

Decades ago, efforts to stabilize the banks led the Army Corps of Engineers to wrap heavy wire fencing against the river’s sides. They strapped stones into retainer walls, and paved the riverbank with concrete rounded to look like rocks. The cutting of the riverbed was encouraged to safeguard the increasing density of downtown buildings from catastrophic floods.

This kind of “maintenance” reflects the way Santa Fe has perceived the river. It is an extension of our plumbing, a faucet that can literally be turned off and on at will. The river is the drain that carries wasted storm water away, but is not thought to need water of its own. When it starts running again, south of town, the water is treated effluent.

Up at the reservoirs, it is someone’s job to decide how much water to release to the river, how much to hold. The city’s water glass needs to be filled before the snow melts, but the reservoir must not overflow. It is a job that swings between stinginess and excess. I wonder how the person at the gate can bear to let any water loose, or to keep it contained.

In early April, the group American Rivers declares the Santa Fe the most-endangered river in the country. It is strange news, coming at a time when the river has begun to run peacefully. The rush of water has slowed to an ankle-deep ripple. It has found a curving path through the wide riverbed, and runs braided in the loveliest sections. The nondescript trees growing out of the rocky sand turn green. I am happy to see the color, but then realize the trees are Siberian elms, an invasive species. Other plants come up — mustards, mallows, verbena. Three cottonwoods burst open with the freshest, lightest green leaves imaginable. Finally, slender willow leaves emerge from the few pockets where they have survived.

Every afternoon, children can be heard playing in the water. Families come fishing. I see an elderly couple walking hand in hand, and later sitting and watching the water. A beaver has been sighted just east of the section Elliot and I walk each day after work. A beaver. We stay out past dusk in hopes of seeing it.

I have always taken pleasure in walking along the river, but now that it flows, just as its name suggests it should, a sense of wonder and gratitude overcomes me. It is the reverse of witnessing an amputation. Indeed, it is a resurrection.

Water flows again through the heart of our community, restoring a semblance of balance to the river. It is as if a special pair of glasses have been given to me, allowing me to glimpse the invisible thread that connects the willows and rocks, the wild alfalfa, the raven flying soundlessly overhead. Allowing me to see this oversized arroyo for what it is meant to be — a living, breathing, riparian ecology.

What else does the river offer that we have forgotten in our thirst for its liquid? Beyond mere sustenance, what else is carried in its arms?

While walking the river, I have awakened to its emptiness. Each time we take a drink, we drink the river. Instead of flowing along its course, it runs through our bodies. How can we not become attentive to the needs of the river, when it has been sacrificed to sustain us?

The empty riverbed is my responsibility because I, too, am a container for the river. In gratitude, it is time to return those waters to where they belong.

I am driving to work one morning before dawn on Alameda, parallel to the river. The sky behind the mountains is rich with pinks and reds. A great creature swoops in front of my car, flies low in front of me. It is a bird, I realize, slamming my brakes in surprise. A great blue heron flying upstream. My heart leaps into my throat. A heron on the Santa Fe River.

Migrations, rhythms, cycles. Before me is the hope of the river — a reminder of what has been broken and what will be healed. Before me is a fragment of balance.

At the hospital parking lot, another nurse comes up to me. “I was driving behind you when the heron flew out,” she says. Though we only know each other by sight, she takes my arm and squeezes it. “I wept when I saw that, and I was so glad someone else saw it too.”

Our hearts are as broken as the river. It is time to piece this tapestry of ecology, of community, back together.

At an Earth Day celebration, the Santa Fe Watershed Association has a booth. They have two displays of river water habitats. A plastic basin holds river water from the Pecos River. Filled with floating leaves, dirt and other natural debris, it is home to scores of bugs — stonefly, riffle beetle, dobsonfly, mayfly — and those only the ones visible to the naked eye. The signs of a robust, intact waterway.

Another plastic basin contains a sample from the Santa Fe River. It is dry, empty except for a few red rocks and some sand. Someone comes up behind me and asks if they can pour some water into the Santa Fe basin. After all, the river is running, even if it doesn’t have any life to speak of. Most people agree that the beaver swam back to the Rio Grande.

I join the association. It seems like a small step, but never before have I translated my yearning for something, or my anger and frustration, into collective action. In her book, “The Open Space of Democracy,” Terry Tempest Williams asks, “At what point do we finally lay our bodies down to say this blatant disregard for biology and wild lives is no longer acceptable?” I have reached that point. I can no longer abide living a block from a river called most-endangered in America. It is as if I have crossed a threshold and burst into passionate flames. Only a restored river can put this fire out.

It might be years before the Santa Fe River sees year-round water and fully recovers from its degraded condition, but after a only a month or so of flow, it shows signs — like the heron and beaver, but smaller and perhaps more significant — of its return.

I marvel at the ability of the land to repair itself given a trickle of water and the attention of caring citizens. Dozens of small stone check-dams built by folks on their evening walks have done their work well, terracing the water flow and reshaping the riverbed. Sand bars have formed, and the river’s bottom is now lined with rocks and pebbles. Most incredible of all is the algae. First a coat of slime on the river rocks, it grows into a thick moss, and finally begins streaming with the water. Yellow green growth where once lay dry red sand. The joy of water and light and plant cells.

It only makes my fire burn hotter.

The river might flow for months yet, until late June. Inevitably, it will stop. The river dries up, year after year. The willow and cottonwood stems planted in a burst of optimism — let’s restore the living river! — will shrivel up and get washed away during a late summer monsoon.

“The world is going to be saved by people saving their own homes,” Pete Seeger said. I am relieved to have found my way to this truth. The world’s problems are too big for me. The river is a block from my house. I have known it in all weathers, all lights. I drink it in every glass of water from my sink. My heartbeat quickened when the heron swept across my path. Perhaps the world will be saved by people saving themselves.

I have heard people say, “There isn’t enough water for the river. It would be wasted if it ran downstream. We need it for our homes, our businesses.” The city hydrologist says that the river is considered a renewable resource, like wind power. What she means is that the water is renewable. It refills the reservoirs each spring after a wet winter, and thus can be used freely.

The river itself, however, is not renewable unless it is given water. The river is dying and will continue to die — its banks deepening and falling in, the native vegetation dead, the animals gone along with their habitat.

It is time for a reordering of priorities. A minimum amount of water necessary to sustain a living river should be released year round, period. If this were the case, we wouldn’t go thirsty. We would adapt, learning very quickly to live within our means. Water conservation measures, including rain catchment and greywater systems, would become our way of providing for the future, as opposed to dependence on “foreign water” like the San Juan River.

The Santa Fe River is our physical connection to the past, a tangible link that connects the generations that have come before with those who will follow. It spans time and history, anchoring us to our home. It is the thread that stitches us back into the tapestry of the wild, pointing us gently away from destruction and toward conservation.

The river is the place where the natural world, the mythical world, the spiritual and the historical worlds enter our bodies, our minds. Without it, we are adrift. Our land becomes as meaningless as a textbook on the past, a story without life.

The feast day of San Isidro, patron saint of Agua Fria village, comes in late May. I slip into the back of the church and add my voice to the choir. The deacon leads us in praising San Isidro, thanking him for tending the fields, the orchards, the acequias and the river.

A hand-painted banner of the saint is carried down the church’s aisle. Elderly women follow close behind the deacon; the choir with its guitars falls into step after them. The rest of us follow, singing the alabado de San Isidro. We proceed down the road, and turn toward the river. When the water comes into sight, there are dozens of people along its banks. Our voices grow stronger when we see them, and we carry the saint forward to those waters.

Flowers are handed out. Children give them to their grandmothers, to their neighbors, to conservationists and politicians. The deacon asks us to line up along the river, to raise our hands. He prays for the river, that it may flow and be strong, and that it bring spiritual strength to all in our community. We cry amen, ojalá, and drop our flowers into the running water.

They are red and gold. For a moment, like me, the water bursts into flames.

A nurse, herbalist and poet by training, A. Kyce Bello now works on honing her radical homemaker skills. She regularly takes her two small daughters to play in the dry riverbed.