Chaco Canyon, Otero Mesa, and the Sacrifice of the American West

February 13, 2017

V. B. Price

Water, land and respect – those are three imperatives for a life worth living in New Mexico and in the desert Southwest. All three will be under attack from arch-conservative Washington over the next four years.

A climate change waffler with no management experience will run the $21 billion budget of the Department of the Interior with its 70,000 plus employees, among them the leadership of the Bureau of Land Management. A longtime enemy of environmental regulations designed to protect individual and community health will lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with its $10 billion-plus budget. And a far-right federal appeals judge who believes the Constitution should reflect the values of the l8th century, not the 21st century, probably will sit on the Supreme Court and have something to say about water in New Mexico and the West.

Water makes everything work. Without proper quantities of unpolluted water, progress, creativity, life itself is impossible. Land gives meaning and identity. Without land and landscape free from destructive exploitation, without a commons preserved for all and shared by all, life becomes bitter experience in a hostile world. Without respect for water, land, meaning and identity almost nothing is worthwhile. And being disrespected leads inevitably to animosity, conflict, and grudges that won’t give way.

Will this be our fate? Will we be disrespected, exploited, and polluted by the federal government now in extremist, anti-public, anti-government hands?

Few people will have as much influence on the way we live in New Mexico and in the Southwest over the next four years as Ryan Zinke, Neil Gorsuch, and Scott Pruitt. They are all, in one way or another, men who believe the public good to be the enemy of private profit. They will all have a commanding say in how drought and water scarcity is managed in the West, in how much focus is given to cleaning up the West’s polluted ground water, and in how vigorous the federal government is in protecting public lands and national parks and monuments.

When activists say that elections have consequences, they are talking about the likes of this terrible troika.

Neil Gorsuch is the new President’s nomination to the Supreme Court, a court which is now hearing a suit brought by Trump-voting Texas v. Clinton-voting New Mexico, claiming that we are in violation of the Rio Grande Compact of 1939. The fate of agriculture in southern New Mexico hangs in the balance.

Ryan Zinke is the President’s nomination to be the Secretary of the Interior with the department’s vast power over land, grazing, drilling, and mining in the West. He will oversee, among dozens of other agencies, both the BLM, which just approved oil and gas drilling leases not 20 miles from Chaco Canyon and would like to sell leases on pristine Otero Mesa southwest of Almagordo, and the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR)which oversees and upkeeps all water infrastructure in the West.

Scott Pruitt is the President’s nominee to be the administrator of the EPA which oversees pollution cleanup in the country, and is the operating arm of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, among others crucial laws. In desperately polluted military-industrial sacrifice zones like New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, California and other western states, the EPA is the only hope for the decades-long task of cleaning up ruined aquifers and filthy air in our rural and water starved area.

I don’t think the Democrats and the few environmentally sensitive Republicans have the votes to prevent any of them taking office.

Pruitt, the attorney general of Oklahoma, is, like other administrators before him, a longtime opponent of the EPA. His reign is likely to follow the ironic pattern of other Republican administrators who worked tirelessly to undermine the brainchild of GOP warhorse Richard Nixon who created the agency in l974 by, of all things, an executive order. It’s an even deeper irony that the mother of Judge Gorsuch, Anne Gorsuch, was the first woman to administer the EPA. She was nominated by Ronald Reagan. Is her controversial tenure a model for what’s ahead?

Gorsuch cut the EPA budget by 30%, laid off 13,000 or so employees, all but gutted the Superfund clean up program, and considered environmentalists in the EPA to be the enemy. She generated so much controversy and animosity she had to resign from her post.

If Pruitt is even remotely as zealous as Gorsuch what happens to air quality in the Four Corners, already the dirtiest rural air-shed in the nation? What happens to Albuquerque’s efforts to clean up the massive Kirtland Air Force jet fuel spill, and similar groundwater pollution under virtually every military base in the West. What happens to nuclear waste in Los Alamos, Sandia Labs, and the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad? What happens to the endless environmental degradation of Albuquerque’s Mountain View neighborhood in the South Valley?

With Zinke at the helm of the BLM, what’s to keep the agency from selling oil and gas leases so close to Chaco Canyon that its status as an International Dark Sky Park would be in danger? Or has that already happened when the BLM recently sold oil and gas leases on 850 acres for a paltry $3 million just 20 miles from the UNESCO World Heritage Chaco Culture National Historic Park? This is not an academic question. The U.S. House of Representatives, staunchly in control of government-haters, is already doing away with the Obama Administration’s Venting and Flaring Rule, designed to cut down on the horrible releases of methane greenhouse gases around fracking sites. Imagine trying to see the moons of Jupiter on a moonless and cloudless night at Chaco with a bunch of immense flaring and venting drill sites well within the range of the naked eye.

Otero Mesa, an untouched 1.2 million acre Chihuahuan desert grassland in southeastern New Mexico, sits atop what’s known as the Salt Basin which is reputed to have enough pristine high quality water in it to supply a million people for 100 years with drinking water, water desperately needed in Las Cruces, El Paso, and Juarez, Mexico. A federal appeals court in 2005 ruled against the BLM’s plan to sell oil leases there, which would have jeopardized the existence of the Mesa’s over 1000 species of native wildlife. Because of three small mountains in the area with rare earths used in electronics, there’s a danger strip mining might be allowed there as well. Will Zinke’s Department of interior prevent it?

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch could have a decisive voice the case against New Mexico brought by Texas currently before the Court claiming that New Mexico is not sending enough water to Texas under the Rio Grande Compact of 1938.

Who knows what an l8th century federalist-minded judge might know about water law, but I bet he doesn’t have much interest in western water rights, as the American West was not an object of reality in the 1700s. Should the drought in the Colorado River watershed worsen, Gorsuch might also have something to say about how water scarcity is shared among states that did vote for his President (Arizona, Utah, Wyoming) , and states that did not (New Mexico, California, Nevada, Colorado). All are members of the Colorado River Compact of 1922.

It seems certain that political vendettas will be played out around us in the years ahead. You can already see them smoking on the horizon. In his confirmation hearing, Scott Pruitt questioned if California’s stringent air quality laws, which have done so much to reduce smog in LA, would be allowed under his EPA. That one remark set off a cascade of speculation about environmental state’s rights. It even prompted California’s former Republican environmental governor Arnold Swartzenegger, who set those auto emission standards, to tweet last week, “My Republican Colleague here is all about states’ rights – except the right to clean air and (sic) save lives from pollution.”

Water, land, and disrespect. You can feel the forces of greed and callous indifference pawing at the ground. We better start getting serious – about politics and its consequences – very, very soon indeed.

*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
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About V.B. Price

V.B. Price has lived in New Mexico since 1958, mostly in Albuquerque’s North Valley, writing poetry, journalism and non-fiction. His website is


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