Renewal: New Mexico tribe deploys ancient practices against drought

In a northern New Mexican town, drought is forcing changes to water and crop management. The local Indigenous community, which has inhabited the area for thousands of years, is taking a lead in introducing time-tested, nature-based approaches.

Andres Leighton/AP
Eugene “Hutch” Naranjo places corn to dry at his home in Ohkay Owingeh, in northern New Mexico, Aug. 21, 2022. Facing drought, the Tewa people are marrying scientific and native knowledge to revive the land they have inhabited for thousands of years.

This was a land of dense forests. A creek cascading through ponds in a canyon. A valley of sage and juniper with shady cottonwood galleries and many gardens.

For thousands of years, the Tewa people of Kha’p’o Owingeh – Valley of the Wild Roses – have called Santa Clara Pueblo in northern New Mexico home. They hunted, gathered firewood and medicinal and ceremonial plants, and dug clay to make shiny black and redware pottery. Fields near the Rio Grande bore a bounty of corn, beans, squash, and chiles.

But heat and drought, exacerbated by climate change, have taken a toll on the the pueblo’s 89 square miles, from the Rio Grande Valley to Santa Clara Canyon in the Jemez Mountains – threatening an existence tied to land, water, and animals celebrated through stories, songs, and dances passed down through ages.

Three large wildfires in 13 years burned more than 80% of the pueblo’s forested land. The last one, the 2011 Las Conchas fire, burned so hot it hardened ground like concrete.

Two months later, just a quarter-inch of rain unleashed the first of several devastating flash floods, scouring charred slopes and sending boulders, debris, and sediment through the pueblo. It buried a canyon road 50 feet deep, blew out earthen dams, and drained ponds. It decimated wildlife habitat and killed all fish.

In the valley, where the tribe of about 1,350 lives, runoff after rains still fills irrigation ditches with sediment and ruins crops. Farmers who once freely diverted water from the Rio Grande now do so on designated days. They say hotter temperatures and stronger winds dry soil quickly, rain is unpredictable, snowfall scarce.

People here are familiar with drought. But the megadrought now gripping the West and Southwest, the worst in 1,200 years, makes the future less certain.

“How do you prepare ... with so many unknowns?” says Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. J. Michael Chavarria. “We can’t just pack up our bags and leave.”

The tribe is restoring the watershed with scientific and native knowledge: using rocks to slow water and create ponds and floodwater diversions. Tree roots and debris create habitat, enrich soil, and shade seedlings and Santa Clara Creek.

Signs of progress include fir and spruce sprouting this summer along the creek. Only about 40% of the tribe’s more than 2 million trees planted in the past 20 years have survived, and some unshaded slopes may never again support trees in a hotter, drier climate.

So the natural regeneration is “like the apex of restoration,” says Garrett Altmann, a geographic information systems and project manager.

There are more signs of renewal: A carpet of green beneath blackened trees. Bulrushes along streambanks. Aspens filling in where conifers burned. Bears, elk, deer, and bobcats returning.

But there’s much to do even after about $100 million in federal disaster aid and other funding was spent on emergency response and to rebuild a temporary canyon road, install culverts, erect steel mesh barriers to catch debris in ravines, and to dig ash and sediment from ponds and the creek.

The tribe needs to rebuild a permanent canyon road and restore ponds, where they hope to reintroduce native cutthroat trout – projects that could cost almost $200 million more, pueblo officials say.

But they believe they can spend less and accomplish more with their nature-based approach, while recognizing limitations in a warmer climate.

They’ll be strategic about replanting trees, leaving space between future forest stands. They’ll revive prescribed burns – an ancient practice long discouraged by state and federal agencies – to keep forests from again becoming overgrown and susceptible to drought, insects, and disease.

Still, some fear climate change could outpace recovery, that another wildfire could undo years of progress.

“I want to be hopeful,” says Eugene “Hutch” Naranjo, who wants to share his childhood experiences – hunting, fishing, camping – with his grandchildren. “But the way things are going now, I don’t know.”

Tribal members also worry about farming’s future in the Rio Grande Valley, where dozens of families once tended plots.

“Fields just aren’t producing like they used to,” says Gilbert Naranjo – no relation to Hutch – who plows farmers’ fields. Many didn’t plant this year after losing much of last year’s crop to winds, a late-summer frost, and ongoing drought.

Some who did lost crops again when drought returned in spring, after heavy monsoon rains in July and August, and when elk from the canyon raided their fields.

Hutch and Norma Naranjo attribute their successful harvest – especially corn, integral to Tewa diet and culture – to prayer, crop rotation, and native seeds that better withstand drought.

But farming is now “a guessing game,” says Mr. Naranjo.

Farmers say temperatures exceed 90 and 100 degrees more often. The wind blows harder, drying soil and flattening crops. Snowpack that melted in spring, filling waterways and recharging aquifers, is increasingly scarce.

A recent federal assessment for New Mexico projects even less snowpack in the future, along with more intense heat and drought that could trigger more wildfires and dust storms.

Changes over the past 30 years already contribute to drought and extreme weather, says National Weather Service hydrologist Andrew Mangham.

“It’s becoming very, very feast or famine,” Mr. Mangham says. “We either have no rain or we get 5 inches at once or 8 inches at once.”

Rainfall can be bittersweet – it helps crops but can wreak havoc, like this summer when flash flood sediment destroyed former Santa Clara Gov. Walter Dasheno’s irrigation system.

Tribal leaders also worry whether groundwater that supplies pueblo homes will continue to recharge adequately.

Mr. Dasheno, who’s on a pueblo water rights committee, says they’ve discussed a solar-powered well, rerouting irrigation ditches, or finding a way to store water from Santa Clara Creek.

The tribe also hopes to recreate wetlands along the Rio Grande to recharge surface and groundwater, says pueblo forestry director Daniel Denipah.

All ideas are on the table, Governor Chavarria says.

“If you don’t have good water to irrigate your crops ... they die off,” he says. “So if we don’t have a good water source, good quality of water, we may die off as well.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Freelance photographer Andres Leighton contributed to this story. AP climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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