Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, NM)


Byline: John Fleck Journal Staff Writer


Wet years bring in the people, but high population suffers more in dry times

EDITOR'S NOTE: Droughts, inevitable in the arid Southwest, can spell doom for an unprepared society. Today the Journal continues its report, "Dry Horizon -- Water in the West," by looking at the climate history of the Southwest and what modern society can do to keep from repeating tragedies of the past.

GRAN QUIVIRA -- Life was never easy at Gran Quivira. In the Salinas Valley, a hundred miles southeast of Albuquerque, the ancient pueblo's ruins today are surrounded by cactus, pinon and juniper -- a classic desert landscape.

But in good times and bad, for more than 300 years, the pueblo's residents scraped out a living farming corn, beans and squash, supplemented with buffalo and other big game.

They weathered the region's inevitable droughts with a complex and clever system of dams and wells to make the most of the region's sometimes sparse rain and snow.

In the 1670s, something changed.

Drought set in, and half the pueblo's residents starved to death.

What was different? Why did a culture that had survived previous droughts collapse during this one?

The answer, experts say, is a cautionary tale about coping with drought in the arid West.

Wherever you live in the Southwest, it ultimately comes down to the same thing -- if it isn't dry now, wait. It will be.

And the pattern appears to be repeating.

Since the mid-1970s, the population has exploded in the Southwest during what researchers believe was one of the wettest two-decade stretches in the past 2,000 years.

Now, they say, the climate may be shifting into a drought that could last for decades.

Historians and archaeologists say that's what happened to Gran Quivira. Its fate was sealed by Spanish newcomers who did not understand the climate's cycles of feast and famine, that dry years historically follow the wet.

The early 1600s were, according to tree-ring records, an unusually wet spell in the Southwest, the wettest in centuries. That is when the Spanish came to Gran Quivira, imposing their new forms of government and religion.

Included in the new ways was a sort of taxation called the encomienda system, under which the Indians were required to pay the Spanish in crops and labor. …

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