Depending on exactly where you stand, the Pecos River is the ugliest or perhaps the most beautiful waterway in New Mexico, one of the lushest and the most sterile.
In the high Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Pecos Falls you can still drink its sweetness. South of Santa Rosa, no one would want to sip its alkaline water.
It is a peaceful-looking stream that has long been the object of conflict and contention. Nearly a thousand miles long, it is the only major river whose source is in New Mexico (if you don’t count the Gila, the San Francisco and the Canadian as major rivers).
The lower three-quarters of its length flows through west Texas, but most of its water and much of its controversy originates in New Mexico’s Pecos Wilderness, which is named for the river, and the surrounding Santa Fe National Forest, which itself has been fought over for a century and a half and at this moment is the subject of still another battle between local Hispanics and the federal government. Washington is proposing to add 120,000 acres to the Pecos Wilderness and hundreds of area residents are passionately resisting.
Spaniards and Plains Indians battled here. The Navajos from the Four Corners area were exiled here. The Santa Fe Ring conned Hispanics out of their land here and then sold it to Uncle Sam to create the national forest.
Species became endangered here and after many a battle were saved.
For decades Texas and New Mexico fought in the courts over the right to use its water. When New Mexico lost, so did many of the farmers and ranchers who had counted on its water.
The contradictions and paradoxes of the Pecos River are enough to fill a book, which is exactly what Patrick Dearen has done in, “Bitter Waters: The Struggles of the Pecos River.”
It was recently published by the University of Oklahoma Press, one of the country’s better university presses and one that has shown a continuing interest in New Mexico.
A prolific journalist from Midland, Texas, Dearen has 10 nonfiction books and 12 novels to his credit.
Although the book is written with the narrative flare and accessible simplicity of good journalism, it is unusual in this genre in including the accoutrements of a solid academic monograph. Footnotes, bibliography and index combined account for 69 of the volume’s 241 pages.
The Pecos has a single overriding problem that dwarfs all else. It and many of its tributaries flow over a bed of salt laid down millennia ago when much of the southwest lay beneath a vast inland sea. The result is that most of the Pecos, with the notable exception of the high mountain springs and streams that are its source, is heavily alkaline. Some of its riparian area is marsh, some of it barren desert. Even in the best places, where a fresh water tributary dilutes the salt, farmers face a failing struggle to grow anything at all.
Increasing population due to development of New Mexico and Texas and decreasing water due to climate change, overuse and a century of fire suppression have worsened the river’s problems. But even without these changes, the geology of the Pecos Basin is a harsh and irremediable fact of life.
In his final summation, Dearen strives to be even-handed, carefully balancing optimism and pessimism, environmentalism and development, past depredations and future hopes. But he writes:
“As a dying river, or perhaps a stream only temporarily in decline, the Pecos is under siege by problems so vast and varied that resolutions are challenging if not impossible.Some individuals question the wisdom of even attempting to save it—‘It’s absolutely worthless to us,’ said one Texas rancher—yet for others, the importance of coexisting with a river in an arid land is clear.”
He then adds, “Even with vision and perseverance, the river’s advocates are limited by the harsh reality of what can and cannot be done in the face of nature and an expanding population with all its demands.”