Sunday, December 11, 2005

Beatriz's Light Bulb

Beatriz's Light Bulb
Sunday, December 11, 2005

It’s Sunday Morning. I’ve been waiting all week for Beatriz’s latest Rio Grande adventure. She's already moved into Chihuahua, Mexico to a stretch of river called the ‘Forgotten River.’ I guess you need to cover ground quickly in a newspaper column.

The Rio Grande separates Chihuahua from Texas, and it seems to do it quite poignantly. The Rio Grande, like the South Yuba, is heavily plumbed. As the river passes through El Paso it all but disappears. Lining what once was a vibrant river are now ghost towns and salt cedars. The salt cedar can ‘guzzle up to 200 gallons of water a day.’ Mexico is allotted 60,000 acre-feet of water per year from the river but is not permitted to dam the river for agricultural use until the water reaches Coahuila where the Rio Conchos gives its water to the decimated Rio Grande. That’s over 300 miles of no water for agriculture.

Those numbers meant nothing to me until last Tuesday’s FERC Academy. 60,000af/yr seems like a big number… On average, the South Yuba receives 93,000af/yr. 85,000 of that comes within a few months during the spring runoff when Spaulding Reservoir can no longer contain all the water coming from the snowmelt and rains. This is when Spaulding Dam #2 spills. The remaining 9,000af/yr we get comes from the 1cfs faucet at the base of Spaulding 1. In other words, when we’re not getting spring runoff, we’re not getting much water and the majority of the water we do get comes within a very short window.

I can only assume that Mexico doesn’t get its 60,000af/yr in a nice, steady flow either. If they have no water most of the year and no way to hold it when it comes, there’s no way to sustain life – of either the river or the people. On top of that, they have the invasive salt cedars lining the banks hoarding what little water does flow. The people of Chihuahua got screwed. The results are impossible to miss.

It is here that Beatriz makes a connection: Nora-Naranjo Morse of Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico told her that ‘she has come to see the river as “a person, as alive.” She called it a “metaphor for our lives. ‘Cause when the water is ill, maybe we’re ill.”’ Beatriz considers, ‘Where the river is broken, so are the lives along it.’

But people remain living in this region of Mexico. Or if they’ve moved to the United States for more financial opportunities, many seem to return. Beatriz asked Lisset Saenz, a 17 year old living in Van Horn, Texas whether she prefers the United States or Mexico. Lisset said she is happier in Mexico, ‘There’s nothing to worry about here. Van Horn, everybody cares about what you have, and who has more things. Here, everybody is equal.’

This statement made by a 17 year old girl seems so utterly wise. The river is definitely ill, yet the people most affected by the disease are not the one’s who are ill; the society causing the illness in the river is the one appearing to be ill. We hoard things and we hoard the rivers for ourselves. In doing so, we’re far more destructive than the invasive salt cedars.

Seeing a destroyed river and the effects must feel devastating. Our water policies have not only destroyed rivers to this extreme in other countries, but in our own as well – and in California at that. The Owens River on the eastern side of the Sierra once sustained a vibrant community and fertile land until the entire river was diverted to sustain Los Angeles. There must be countless similarities between Chihuahua’s Rio Grande and the Owens Valley in California. These are both drastic examples leading to two river’s severe illness and death, in the case of the Owens River. At what point does a river start to become ill in the first place? Once it starts to become ill do we even have the ability to detect the illness anymore?

Two days after her bleak Mexico experience, Beatriz floated down the Rio Grande in a raft in Big Bend National Park. The river had become a river once again because of the Rio Grande’s confluence with the Rio Conchos. Marcos Paredes of the National Park Service was Beatriz’s guide. His major life decisions have been made in isolation on the river. He fears for its life, ‘What people have got to understand is how we are killing this river. And dead is dead…. There are values that we don’t traditionally look at that we should consider – solitude, quiet, dark skies. How far should we go to protect that?’ Paredes asked when the last time Beatriz went anywhere and did not see another person. Or has she ever? Beatriz replied without having to think about it: no.

I found her answer disheartening. How many people also have not? How can we protect those things Paredes asks about if people have not experienced the value of them? These are not things that can be reduced to monetary values such as the value of water converted to electricity or the value of water sold for agricultural or domestic use. These are the things of unquantifiable value that help heal societal illnesses. The same gap resurfaces…

Beatriz concludes her article: ‘By the end of the day…I am also changed in a way I never expected…. I never considered that this body of water…was a living thing that could die…. I long to return next year and float down other canyons, to savor the feeling I tasted so briefly… - that of being one with the river, of the water in my own body pulling like a magnet toward the river…. I long to see a day when we fix the problems with this river that has provided so much life.’

The light bulb has finally been turned on.