By Patricia Lee Sharpe
I’ve been walking along a nearly dry river lately, and I’ve had lots of company, including dogs with cold noses and cyclists who startled me because I didn’t hear them approaching on the smooth new pavement. I’ve also encountered joggers, speed walkers, assorted chums strolling and chatting, skate-boarders and people pushing baby carriages—a microcosm of the community, in fact, some in good shape, some in need of much more walking or much less eating.
Visitors scoff at the Santa Fe river, especially when it has the Gobi-desert-in-miniature look. But even when the river is more or less running—in the spring, after a big rainstorm, when water is being released from the never-quite-full-enough reservoirs upstream, the scoffers aren’t impressed. “Santa Fe trickle?” they suggest, with a sneer. “Santa Fe dribble?”
How Much Water Is Necessary?
When is a river really really a river? When it’s broad and deep and has a strong flow to it, unlike those poor relations dubbed streams and creeks? When it can’t, safely, be waded across? Is it still a river when, intermittently, it’s reduced to a few stagnating pools? Or when it masquerades as an arroyo, even as its invisible underground perennial seepage supports a verdant, jungly sort of bosque (think of the ultra-poetic English word ‘bosky’) that snakes across a landscape of sparse scrawny vegetation?
When it's had as little recent connection with H2O as the supposed rivers on Mars?
Northern New Mexico has a few rivers that never occult themselves. There’s the Chama flowing into O’Keefe country from Colorado, the quick-descending Nambe River transporting snowmelt from Santa Fe Baldy, the Rio en Medio with its charming waterfalls, the Pecos River descending from the Eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. And, of course, there’s the Rio Grande which flows to the west of Santa Fe on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, performing for 1000 plus miles its task of dividing the U.S. from Mexico.
None of these rivers can compete with the Mississippi or the Amazon or the Nile or the Rhine, or even the Ohio, but water is the stuff of life. Wherever it appears, in whatever form, in whatever quantity, it’s cherished. And so, the city of Santa Fe has, little by little, over the past few years, thumbed its nose at financial bad times and extended the Santa Fe River Trail.
When I finally got around to checking out the new portion a few weeks ago, I was impressed by the amount and quality of the work that had gone into the project. Shortly after, as usual at this time of year, the flow was turned off. Just in time for tourists to peer into it and guffaw, “That’s a river?”
Why does the river get turned off?
Pure necessity. Dams on the river impound water for non- spiritual, non-aesthetic needs. If the reservoirs behind those dams aren’t full enough (and the other sources upon which the city depends are equally depleted), faucets won’t flow and toilets won’t flush. Good citizens hereabouts are vigilant year round water conservators, because they are denizens of the high desert. No one ever got rich farming this land. Not the original peoples. Not the Spanish colonials. Today New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the union.
Insufficient rainfall is the culprit. Even in the wettest years there’s not enough water to maintain Eastern-style green lawns, and the most conscientious limit the frequency and duration of their showers. I’ll confess. I’m good about the no-lawn regimen, but pretty profligate when it comes to showering during a hot spell.
Ducks and Little Girls
Although the watershed for the reservoirs in use today are off bounds to casual hikers, to protect our water supply, such as it is, anyone can walk atop the earthen remains of a late 19th century dam and see the marshy remnant of that reservoir (photo above), now home to a quackery of ducks and a colony of beavers, who are industriously at work on their own damming.
This a favorite place for local bird watchers, and a mile-long path encircling the pond connects with Santa Fe’s extensive system of urban trails. Santa Fe is a walker’s paradise, even for those who don’t fancy hiking at the higher altitudes.
The most delightful moment during my first morning on the new portion of the Santa Fe River Trail was encountering a little girl splashing in a pool below a newly constructed rocky step down. Although the pool was not much larger than a couple of bath tubs, to that little girl at that moment that little catchment of water was her own special place. She flopped. She splashed. I was tempted to shake off my sandals and wade in, but I settled for vicarious pleasure instead. My intrusion would have destroyed her magic.
Re-Creating a a Proper Bosque
By the time I managed to find time for another walk along the river, there was even less of it, water-wise, and the farther I walked downstream (so to speak) the drier it got. Toward the end of the new improved trail, the river bed was completely dry, which was good, actually, for me. I could see the extent of the new stone work, the embankments to hold spring’s rush of snow melt, the placing of rock to manage the river’s descent toward the Rio Grande, the shapely channels for runoff from an occasional gullywasher of a rain storm. Without water, it was beautiful, like sculpture. Also visible was the well-worn old path, ducking under a brand new footbridge, leading the more adventurous on toward the Rio Grande.
Unfortunately much of the newly improved mileage is shadeless and bleak. Too many bulldozers have been at work. However, once all the scrupulously re-introduced local vegetation takes hold and gets to thriving again in habitat from which it was displaced by ruthless alien species, the Trail will truly fulfill its ecological as well as its recreational promise. No more salt cedar, for instance. This giant weed has lovely plumes of delicate pink flowers, but it needs so much water that a stand of salt cedar can dry up a small stream. Also mostly gone: the ubiquitous Chinese or Siberian elms that were imported in the 19th century and flourished because they require amazingly little water for their size. To replace the interlopers: hundreds of cottonwoods and river willows. It may take ten years, but a new, wholly native bosque will eventually flourish here.
Meanwhile, back in the heart of Santa Fe, the river may gurgle and burble, or it may go dry, as it is right now, but if you're walking along the heavily-shaded stretch of river, you might very well be thinking, "Desert? What desert?"