Drylands don’t have to be dry. When we look at drylands across North America, they can look desolate and either devoid of greenery or lacking much in the way of green growth. But as soon as you go near a river, in the shadow of a mountain valley or anywhere where water is in relative abundance, then the trees get bigger. The density of plants is higher and the plants themselves are more lush and verdant.
This is because, of course, water is the key to life in areas of low rainfall. It is the weak link in production for states like Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Western Kansas, South Dakota, Eastern California and Oregon. This is similar in Canadian provinces like Alberta, Saskatechewan and Manitoba, and in areas of Mexico.
Anywhere in the world where water is scarce (or seasonally scarce), farm success hinges on water access and distribution.
Growing in Arid Environments
In New Mexico, where I have been conducting Surveys for Edible Ecosystem Design (SEED), the water-hungry farm production for fruits and vegetables is mostly allocated to narrow river valleys along the Rio Grande, Pecos River. You’ll also find farms near creeks in watersheds that feed the lowlands from the higher Sangre de Cristo, Jemez and Gila Mountains.
Ancestral systems of acequias (or water ditches) deliver water from rivers, like the Santa and Tesuque, to flood-irrigated fields in the shelter of hills and lowland woodlands. Here, historic flooding has left fertile alluvial soils.
However, land with surface and irrigation water rights is at a premium. This makes sense when you consider that every acre of land with access to river and acequia waters essentially gathers water from a much larger acreage of watershed catchment. But this land is also at a premium due to housing and tourism needs, where access to water for recreation (a river in a high mountain desert is beautiful) and watering of recreational and vacation home landscapes is also desirable.
Land with surface water rights in New Mexico, for instance, can be as high as $90,000+ per acre (without any buildings) in the desirable Galisteo watershed. It’s much more along the Santa Fe or Tesuque river, where housing is usually included with the land. When land like this experiences the pressures of tourism and dream property home owners, the fate of local farming is dire.
In this particular situation, my biggest thoughts are these.
- We need policy to prioritize surface water rights for local food production and programs to help local farms own desirable properties with functional ease of irrigating food from rivers, creeks and acequias.
- These lowland farms should focus on season extension to make the most of seasonal abundance from snow melt, including water holding strategies on the land such as ponds, tanks and bioswales in addition to rain catchment from roofs and drives.
- New homes and rebuilds should be built on the sides (not tops) of the hills, and certainly not in the lowlands.
- These mid-slope homes should have dry-land edible landscapes (edible xeriscape) that don’t require water. This can include plants like edible cacti, agaves, pinyons, wild berries and herbs, etc.
- Graywater from all homes should be non-toxic and diverted to resilient edible landscapes within communities and be connected to municipal scale water catchment from roads and roofs.
None of what I say is new, but these are some of conclusions I’ve arrived at after surveying New Mexico recently. We must build on established design strategies that have been discussed for years, decades and even generations, and stop forgetting the good work done by people in brittle environments to make them more resilient to socio-economic and environmental change.
You can watch some of my Survey for Edible Ecosystem Design in New Mexico in this video.