Resilient. If nothing else, the Chihuahan Desert region, which, until the Treaty
of Guadalup Hidalgo, had shared a common history of Indian and colonial
settlement, can boast that it was subject to about 300 years of typical empire
abuses. Mining and ranching only got worse in the 1900's. In as late as 1938
wild animals, such as turkey, deer and bear were still populating the area but
their fates had already been sealed. (Bieber 1938: 93)
The Rio Grande was first tamed and then completely broken. Its meandering
nature to return to previous channels (Hall 1994: 24, 26), and rarely by
eroding new channels, was guarded against by allowing it to "...return to its
old course by making deep ditches through which it may flow in such an event"
(Hackett 1902: 508). As the years past, more water was syphoned off for
agriculture. While it seemed like a great irrigation feat at the time, the true
costs were not known and today's inhabitants have an enormous amount of work to
do restoring the region and these once great rivers.
In the late 1800's and early 1900's, the Belen Station of the Southern Pacific
Railroad reported that the land was "largely irrigated and under cultivation"
and that the irrigation canals "are lined with almond-leaf willow, Fremont
cottonwood, arrowwood and Baccharis". The uncultivated land expressed
"luxurious growth of mesquite and tornillo". The cultivated areas were made up
of "green orchards, gardens, and fields of grain and alfalfa" (Mearns 1907:pg.
In 1907, a recession in the U.S. dragged the Mexican economy into a downturn. A
few years later, from 1910 to 1917 the Mexican Revolution raged across northern
Mexico. Following this, the Great Depression further disrupted populations.
These largely political events would lay the groundwork for the next century's
U.S. Congressman C.B. Hudspeth of El Paso introduced the first legislative
bills for a national park in what is today Big Bend in 1924 and 1929 (Jameson
1987). Thought these bills failed, a few years later the Great Depression and
Dust Bowl rekindled national interest. Franklin D. Roosevelt, via his new deal,
had set up the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). A CCC camp was located in
what would eventually become Big Bend. This path was chosen because the CCC and
park were both to be economic boons to a struggling community. Additionally
FDR's "good neighbor policy" would be bolstered with the building of a wildlife
park on an international border. Again, the park failed.
During this same time Mexico advanced its environmental concerns adding 36
park areas containing over 2 million acres. In 1934 the National Park Service
(NPS) tried to do a joint park between the US and Mexico within what is today
Big Bend. This initiative, to be dubbed Zona Libre, did not come to fruition.
"The Town of Alpine continued to promote the idea for economic revitalization
throughout the late 1930's and early 1940's. The State of Texas finally
acquired 700,000 acres for the national park in 1942 and Big Bend National Park
was born with the transfer of these lands to the NPS on June 12, 1944"
Dust Bowl Fractal
The effects seen to play out over the last 200 years can be seen happening in
less than a decade during the Dustbowl of the 1930's. Where cattle slowly
degrade lands, diesel powered tractors can accelerate the process
substantially. Chasing artificial post-World War I economic returns,
inexperienced "suitcase farmers", hailing from cities, descended onto the lands
of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas like locusts. They employed actual farmers to
plow up ever increasing expanses of land as the government support for the
price of wheat was removed (note: Canadian farmers did the same thing, but
without the resulting regional specific catastrophe).
Just like in the more arid southwest, "...buffalo grass would hold the
moisture, so that if you went down 12 inches you would find moist earth." Once
this blanket of grass was plowed under, it left the soil exposed to the
elements. When the, predictable, drought cycle struck in 1932 and the crops
failed, there was nothing left to inhibit the evaporative sun and erosive wind.
This quickly led to a feedback loop where the soil completely dried.
Evaporation replaced transpiration and the slow release of moisture from soil
to air accelerated. Once the land was completely dry, wind/dust storms began
blowing topsoil eastward in such great quantity that the dust was landing in
New York City and Washington DC.
The New Deal had provisions to put people to work combating the effects of the
Dustbowl. 220 million Osage Orange trees (Monkeyball, Horseapple) were planted
along 29,000 kilometers (18,600 miles) of windbreaks over approximately 8
years. One researcher, Howard Finnel, a soil researcher of Texas A&M,
recognized that the minuscule amounts of rain that were falling were
evaporating before they could infiltrate the soil. To remedy this he
experimented with using furrows dug on contour. This allowed the water to
concentrate instead of thinly flowing over the land. By the mid 1930's Finnel
had essentially solved the problem, but the drought ended in 1936 and his
contributions were shelved. Finnel worked in soil conservation his entire
career. The bulk of his work was done between 1920 and 1940.
Up to 1944 saw good rains and the beginning of the tapping of the Ogallala
aquifer. In 1930 there were only 170 irrigation wells between the Texas
panhandle and South Dakota. By 1959 over 42,000 wells were pumping. These wells
made it possible to ignore the droughts like the dustbowl, 1944 and of the
1950s (the worst drought Texas has ever seen), and increase production during
non-drought years. Charles Bowden noted that, "By the 1960's the High Plains
had 5,500,000 acres under irrigation and men were working through the night to
direct the flow from the ceaseless pumps." This seemingly limitless water led
to both the extreme reduction in fertility of the land as well as the
exponential depletion of the aquifer.
As more forests were cleared to make room for large scale grazing and
irrigation projects, spring flows began decreasing throughout the region.
Comanche Springs, near Fort Stockton, Texas, was used to irrigate 2,500
hectares with its 1,870 liters/second flow in the early 1900's. By 1940 the
water table was noticeably lower, and by the 1960's the spring stopped flowing
Preserve What We Can't Create
This degradation was compounded by the fact that the prevailing thoughts on
conservation at the time were misguided. Farmers and ranchers looked at the
problem from a profitability standpoint while conservationists looked at it
from a soil conservation vantage. The latter can be seen in an exert from Dr.
H.H. Bennett's book "Soil Conservation" published in the early 1900's: "Lack of
foresight and restraint ... has created in this country a land problem of
tremendous implications. What makes the situation so grave is the irreplaceable
nature of soil. Once this valuable asset leaves a field, it is as irretrievably
lost as if consumed by fire. Soil is reproduced from its parent material so
slowly that we may as well accept as a fact that once the surface layer is
washed off, land so affected is, from the practical standpoint, generally in a
condition of permanent impoverishment. As nearly as can be ascertained, it
takes nature, under the most favorable conditions, including a good cover of
trees, grass, or other protective vegetation, anywhere from 300 to 1000 years
or more to build a single inch of topsoil! When seven inches of topsoil is
allowed to wash away therefore, at least 2000 to 7000 years of nature's work
goes to waste."
Roughly one century after the serious degradation began, in 1963, 64% of the
once lush grasslands were now dominated by mesquite and creosote. The remaining
36% grasslands were of low quality. By the end of the 1900's, about 80% of the
area is now shrub land.
While soil and fertility were recognized as being the foundation of productive
land, the April 1965 publication, American Agricultural Trends: Small Sheet of
Topsoil Sustains World's Life, demonstrated a lack of soil creation
understanding: "All the world's human life depends on the fertility of a thin
sheet of the earth's topsoil, covering 1/10th of the earth's total surface and
forming a storehouse of plant nutrients only about seven inches (17.8
centimetres) deep. It takes about 1000 years to build up one inch (2.5
centimetres) of topsoil. Wind or water can take that much away in a few months
unless the surface is protected."
This thinking, that soil could not be created on human timescales, reinforced
soil conservation methods that still persist. Future articles will show
that soil can be created by manipulating the environmental conditions of the
soil so to produce deep, rich soil, in semi- and arid environments, within 2-3
years with proper management. We can do much more than conserve.
In Brad Landcaster's book, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond a few
quotes given by Carlos Ochoa, 49, of Santa Cruz tell the story of growing up
around the Rio Grande and Pecos rivers. His family has lived there since late
1800's and have passed down stories of verdant landscapes and large river-side
trees where you could walk barefoot all summer and rope swing into watercress
covered water. Currently the river is kept in check with cement banks where
runoff is misdirected from vegetation to a dry river bed. Then, irrigation
water is piped in for the preferred vegetation.
1. "We killed that river with our over-pumping. We used too much water and we
keep increasing our use."
2. "Why don't people value their water? Why do they waste so much? Why do they
drain away water and then give city drinking water to plants?..."
3. "Yeah, well, we gotta do it [restore the river]. We have to show people how
to do it. We gotta get more of them doing it. We get enough of them doing it,
and we'll bring that river back."
The river was slowly disappearing. During the 25 years from 1889-1914 the
International Boundary Water Commission (IBWC) flow gauge at Presidio recorded
34 months with zero flow in the river (Everitt 1998: 660). It was this
reduction in flow to downstream users that necessitated the construction of
Elephant Butte Dam, the first and major dam of the Rio Grande, in southern New
Mexico, which was completed in 1916. Later the second of a one-two punch
combination was developed - Caballo Dam. Together these 2 dams make up the
backbone of the tamed Rio Grande.
Total control over the entire flow of the Rio Grande was desired. In the mid
1930's the IBWC started 2 projects that would forever change the Rio Grande.
First, The Rio Grande Canalization Project set about to confine the flow of the
river to a channel along the international border, manipulate the flood way
with levees, and finally to remove all vegetation between Caballo Dam and El
Paso. This process also shortened the distance the river ran in the El Paso
Valley from 250 to 138 kilometers. The second project was the Rio Grande
Rectification Project, which, Newspeak aside, was to provide Mexico with water
the US was holding in dams.
Continuing the trend of taming the wild river, Amistad Reservoir was completed
in 1969. This flooded 119 kilometers of the Rio Grande, 40 kilometers of Devils
River, and 23 kilometers of the Pecos river. A few years later, in the
mid-1970's a channel relocation project was completed along 13.4 kilometers of
the Rio Grande near the mouth of the Río Conchos, including levee construction
and the obligatory vegetation clearing.
A few other Río Conchos [watershed dams] projects include:
1. La Boquilla Reservoir, with a capacity (about 3000 million cubic meters)
slightly greater than Elephant Butte Reservoir, completed in 1913 and located
400 km upriver from the gauge.
2. Francisco I. Madero Reservoir, with a capacity of about 350 million m3,
completed in 1947 and located about 310 km upriver.
3. Luis L. Leon Reservoir, also with a capacity of about 350 million m3,
completed in 1967 and located 180 km upriver (IBWC 1997: 16, 83).
Laws, They Fix Everything!
The Organic Act of 1916 states that the purpose of national parks is "to
conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife
therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such
means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
This was expanded in the 1940's with legislation establishing Big Bend National
Park because, "lands... as necessary for recreational park purposes... are
hereby established, dedicated and set apart as a public park for the benefit
and enjoyment of the people". Additionally, the law provisions the
"administration, protection, and development of the aforesaid park". If nothing
else, at least there was some consideration given to the blatantly degrading
lands. Sadly, it would be more than 50 years before any other attempts at
"conservation" were made.
In 1983-1988 the Cooperation for the Protection and Improvement of the
Environment in the Border Area was signed by the National Park Service and the
Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua to promote preservation and research.
Later in 1988 Texas purchased lands to establish the Big Bend Ranch State Park.
The goal of this project is stated to: "preserve intact a large expanse of the
Trans-Pecos ecosystem containing remarkably diverse natural and cultural
resources largely unchanged from historic times. It is significant for its
abundance of flora, fauna, geologic,and hydrological resources singly and in
combinations that are rarely found in the Chihuahuan Desert."
In 1994 Cañon de Santa Elena Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna (CSE) and
Maderas del Carmen Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna (MDC) were established by
decree to protect the Sierra del Carmen mountains.
With all of these, and there are many more, protection agencies it is
perplexing to see the degradation still continuing to this day...
This era marked the beginning of larger projects like railways and dams. These
were driven in many cases by profit: opening up coastal markets to the desert
beef production and taming the rivers to provide irrigation to would-be
farmers. Population pressures also contributed to the influx of settlers to
the region. This is a recipe for disaster. Too many people, too many cattle,
not enough water...
There was an almost total lack of understanding of the desert ecosystem.
"Traditional" irrigation and farming, brought from the east coast forests,
proved less than worthless. For all the attempts at domesticating the desert
via domination led to its precipitous decline by any metric. This
well-intention but misunderstood action had the total opposite of the desired
One stark example of the explosive growth seen in the 1900's is Ciudad Juarez.
At the beginning of the century it was little more than an isolated rural
village, but in less than 100 years the population had grown to over 1 million.
The opposite is seen when looking at grass versus scrub. In the same 100 years
Ciudad Juarez burst onto the scene, the grassland cover decreased from an
estimated 40-70%, depending on the subregion, to less than 25% overall grass
This domination instead of orchestration seems to be a common thread in the
"development" of much of the world's landscapes. We can see laws, often fueled
by short-sightedness, greed, and corruption, being favored over personal
responsibility. This continues to this day, with more water laws and treaties
being signed every year with no recognition that the region can not support the
populations and their lifestyles as they are today.