The Desert’s Open Veins

Native Rights and Water Fights in Albuquerque

Sonny Weahkee, a young Navajo with long flowing hair and a very gentle manner, pointed to the faint painted image of a dancing man in the volcanic rock of West Mesa, in a quiet national monument that seemed worlds away from the bustle of nearby Albuquerque. The images, which dot the mesa for miles around, are petroglyphs, rock paintings done by the Navajos’ ancient ancestors at this sacred site beginning in 1000 B.C.

1998 Elaine Osowski

Navajo legend compares the 17-mile, curving mesa to the spine of a writhing reptile, but this snake will have a broken back if the proposed Paseo del Norte highway extension, being pushed by wealthy real estate developers and Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM)—the same man who helped create the national monument—is finally realized.
If Paseo del Norte is built right through the Petroglyph National Monument, claim the Navajo, it will open up a 6,700-acre real estate development named Black Ranch to ready buyers on the expanding west side of Albuquerque. Black Ranch, the jewel in the crown of influential Albuquerque businessman John Black, would have 19,000 homes and 40,000 residents. It is, of course, illegal to build commercial roads through national monuments, but Domenici fixed that by pushing through a Senate bill that transferred that part of the monument to the city of Albuquerque.

“You guys say everything is sacred,” Sonny Weahkee (a leading light of the Petroglyph Monument Protection Coalition) says he is frequently told by local critics who think the Navajo are getting in the way of progress. Despite the federal approval, Weahkee says he’ll fight on to stop the highway. In addition to filing an appeal, the coalition is trying to show a pattern of conflicts of interest among Albuquerque’s council members, a majority of whom have taken contributions from developers or own land that would benefit from the road. Adding to the already explosive situation is the fact that Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca is a card-carrying Green Party member, and has vowed to stop the Paseo del Norte extension.

But it’s not just the Navajo complaining. Albuquerque’s Hispanic population, mainly of Mexican descent, is also “impeding progress,” says veteran activist Jeanne Gauna, director of the city’s SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP). “An internal colony, that’s what we are,” she says, sitting in a downtown adobe office decorated with colorful environmental murals painted by the youth league. In this desert state, the third most arid in the U.S., water rights are the major battleground, and the area’s emergent high-tech industries, floating on $10 billion worth of tax breaks, have most of the weapons.

Making computer chips, which Intel does in a flagship plant on the outskirts of Albuquerque, is water-intensive. In 1995, that one Intel plant consumed 1,200 million gallons. According to Texas Instruments, a single six-inch silicon wafer soaks up 2,275 gallons of de-ionized water in the production process. Gauna says Intel’s water consumption of four million gallons a day in Albuquerque is “changing the ecology of this region.”

The city is slowly running out of water, and residents are being asked to reduce usage by 30 percent over 10 years. Intel itself is pushing a “Water Smart” program that encourages people to take shorter showers, turn the taps off when brushing their teeth, and water their lawns “only when needed.” Meanwhile, residential water rates in Albuquerque are increasing—to $1.75 per 1,000 gallons last year. But for that same amount of water, Intel (which uses three percent of Albuquerque’s water) paid only 87 cents, and its water use is increasing. (Intel pays even less—25 cents per 1,000 gallons—for the water it pumps itself from the acquifer.)

All that water use is slowly draining the region’s wells—as much as two and a half feet a year, according to some sources. That means water pioneers are having to venture farther afield to find new sources, putting a centuries-old communal water system, called acequia, in danger. In rural north-central New Mexico, water flows through ancient earthen ditches first built by the Pueblo Indians and early Hispanic settlers, 400 years ago.

Because an increasing amount of Intel’s water comes from the Rio Grande, Intel is under court order to acquire and retire water rights to the river. It went shopping down south, and in 1993 it proposed to buy the irrigation rights to rural San Marcial, causing a storm of protest from local farmers and ranchers, and from Albuquerque groups like SWOP that call it an environmental justice issue. “For indigenous people, water is a social necessity, and it should be owned communally,” says Gauna.

Intel’s effort failed (basically because the rights it wanted to buy were ruled invalid), but the company doesn’t rule out future efforts. Richard Draper, Intel’s corporate services director of public affairs, says Intel’s hand was forced by a 1993 U.S. Geological Survey report showing that the acquifer is not being replenished by the Rio Grande as quickly as was previously thought. “We started aggressive water conservation programs,” he says. “We might be using nine million gallons a day if we didn’t do that.”

Draper dismisses the notion that big companies buying farmers’ water rights is an environmental justice issue. “The city of Albuquerque buys water rights on the open market, too,” he says. “If a farmer is retiring and wants to make some money by selling his water rights, who is SWOP to tell him he can’t do it? It’s a private property right, and we take that seriously in New Mexico.”

Intel spokesman Terry McDermott declined a reporter’s request for a guided tour of the company’s sprawling and water-loving complex in Rio Rancho, but he had a good reason to be preoccupied. On that same day, with unsold computers glutting the market, the company announced a layoff of 3,000 people corporate-wide. Maybe the acequias can continue to flow after all.