Article and Photos by SAM MARKWELL
Magdalena, a small mountain village in central New Mexico, captured local and national headlines during the month of June. When the last of three wells that have provided water over the past nine decades ceased functioning on June 5th, the village’s water supply was cut off.
Long hydrated by groundwater pumping, the rural community of roughly one thousand was confronted by the sudden but not entirely unexpected problem of provisioning extremely limited water supplies to people, livestock, and gardens during exceptional drought conditions.
Amidst a deluge of stories on drought, wildfires, and other troubles the desert landscape inflicted on the population of the southwestern United States, Magdalena’s plight was able to garner significant attention.
The city of Socorro, New Mexico Tech, the Very Large Array (part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory), and White Sands Missile Range (military weapons testing area and home to the Trinity Site) all donated water from their systems to Magdalena in the days following the well’s failure.Albuquerque T.V. station coverage of the event worked in conjunction with an opportunistic “water-drive” coordinated by the Albuquerque Police Department, harnessing the sympathies of well-meaning citizens into APD’s strategic public relations. NBC Nightly News covered the story as part of a segment titled “Scorched Earth,” highlighting Magdalena’s problems as emblematic of the drought afflicting western states, concluding “this water war has no end in sight.”
Much of the coverage and attention of the Magdalena incident focused on answering questions of cause and effect: what happened, who was to blame, and what were the consequences? The answers to these questions outlined a set of proximate causes (drought, rural reticence, insolvent government) that painted the town government and townsfolk as delinquent: responsible enough to be blamed for the well’s failure while being helplessly in need of the charitable care and assistance of state institutions and regional communities.
The Albuquerque stations relayed the positions of Governor Susana Martinez and State Engineer Scott Verhines, who described the situation as “preventable.” Verhines official statement, which circulated through T.V. and newspaper coverage, focused on the drought’s emotional effects: “drought has raised frustration levels and tension in New Mexico and across the western US in general. Consequently, the tendency is to point fingers and try and find someone to blame when situations like what occurred in Magdalena take place.” Verhines, who has only been state engineer since 2010, noted that “the office of the State Engineer has seen the potential for this coming for some years (20+) and has been working with the Village in an effort to resolve the situation.” Verhines, not heeding his own call to not point fingers, placed the blame on Magdalena officials who “desiring not to subject themselves to the jurisdiction of the state” had not completed the OSE permitting process. Leaving little room for debate in the interpretation of the crisis, Verhines stated that “In the interest of ‘solving not fighting’, the mantra of this administration, the OSE stands ready to expedite what is now an emergency permit for Magdalena to get their water supply back up and running. Our staff, including our top hydrologists, is available to offer support and expertise.”
Many Magdalena residents and government officials were quick to point out that the village’s applications to the Office of the State Engineer for permits to extend the well in 1992 and 2010 were withdrawn because state legislative capital outlay expenditures for the project never materialized. Don Tripp, the state representative for the district that includes Magdalena, went to a meeting in mid-June and expressed his concern at the state of affairs. Tripp stated, “we don’t realize the importance of our water until we turn on the tap and nothing comes out. We do have to band together.” A Magdalena resident responded by asking Tripp whether she could take a shower at Tripp’s home in Socorro, which is one of the largest and most luxurious houses in the county with verdant gardens and a large swimming pool. Tripp said that she was welcome and that a schedule would have to be set up to accommodate all the townsfolk. Of course, the exchange did not turn into an actual sharing of resources, but the humorous gestures did point out the fact that vulnerability to water shortages is not equally shared.
Like most rural communities in New Mexico, Magdalena’s median income is significantly lower than the state average. The 2010 census reported the village’s median income at $23,965, just over half of the statewide average of $43,028—and the per capita income was estimated at $15,350 per person, significantly lower than the statewide figure of $22,996 and the national average of $39,791. These figures are punctuated by the visible attrition of the community, with a few small businesses remaining open while boarded up windows and vacant buildings dot the landscape.
Already resource poor, the community was further stretched by water-use restrictions enacted after the well went dry. These restrictions included two minute showers (turn on the shower to quickly get wet, turn it off to soap up, and turn it back on to quickly rinse off), using portable toilets, and a prohibition on all outdoor water use (excluding private wells).
In between the sensational and often misleading lines of mainstream news coverage, the contours of the actual structural problems underlying Magdalena’s water crisis are evident. The New Mexico Environment Department released a report in late June, which noted that 290 public water systems in New Mexico were reliant on one source of water, suggesting that Magdalena’s condition was not an aberrant case but rather part of the endemic condition of rural locales throughout the state. Dennis McQuillan of the NMED emphasized the riskiness of this situation, stating “we are receiving reports from across the state of water wells that are drying up, water wells that are decreasing in production, and the same thing with springs.” As groundwater sources are depleted through pumping, the recharge from precipitation has not kept up.
Although rural communities are most at-risk for running dry, urban water systems have been just as successful at depleting groundwater. Albuquerque, for instance, has seen a drastic reduction of groundwater levels, but its economic importance and more robust tax base have allowed it to upgrade its system and use surface water allocated through the San Juan-Chama Project. As aquifer levels throughout the state dwindle and surface water supplies are stretched thin, many are looking at reusing wastewater and developing brackish water sources that can be exploited through desalinization technologies. These technological fixes are in line with the American tradition of solving problems by developing modes of exploiting new resource frontiers, but they sidestep fundamental issues.
Magdalena’s problem is partially due to drought conditions, but it is just as much a problem of infrastructural attrition, i.e., the flow of water is directly conditioned by the flow of state funding, which, in its own state of drought, is due to broader economic conditions. The cultural politics of causality at play shape how the problems in Magdalena and struggling rural places throughout the U.S. are conceptualized and acted upon. Rather than framing Magdalena as a delinquent or negligent village that had to fall back on the generosity of its neighbors and state supervisors, it would be useful to situate the story within historical and geographical conditions that have shaped the distribution of water resources and public funding.
Magdalena originated as a mining driven railroad boom-town in the late 19th century. It is now a quiet mountain town surrounded by federally subsidized neighbors reliant on military-industrial and scientific expenditures. Magdalena produces rustic mountain aesthetics reliant on tourist consumption while its neighbors produce knowledge and materials vital to U.S. war-making and security, and the intricacies of outer space.
This can go some way to explaining why Magdalena’s system ran dry and not those that hydrate the bodies of people who live and work in Socorro, Albuquerque, the White Sands Missile Range, or the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. The problems outlined in Matt Huber’s recent article on energy and the question of social reproduction are just as relevant for water. Like energy, water is vital to social reproduction; every human society has a system for provisioning water. The question Magdalena raises is not simply one of maintaining adequate water supplies for current modes of production. Magdalena and the ongoing water crisis can expand our attention beyond the narrow task of hydrating human bodies to the larger question of why water flows consistently in certain places and not in others, and how these flows and their interruptions are related to processes of social reproduction and attrition. The question then becomes one not just of how to hydrate but what kind of social landscape is being reproduced through processes and practices of unequal development and distribution.