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The Governor Governs, the State Engineer Rules : WATER IN NEW MEXICO A History of Its Management and Use by Ira G. Clark (University of New Mexico Press: $50; 839 pp., illustrated)

May 01, 1988|William Kahrl | Kahrl is the editor of "The California Water Atlas" (William Kaufmann Inc.) and author of " Water and Power " (University of California Press). and

Despite the extraordinary physical beauty of its setting, the story that Ira Clark has to tell in this massively detailed history of New Mexico is largely one of communities struggling to overcome the economic poverty of their land and water resources. It's a curiously shut-ended kind of struggle--a process of self-cannibalization really. Since the water supply itself is finite, each success that the state achieves in drawing more residents or another new industry for today only increases the strain, stealing from the generations to follow.

By the end, the reader is left wondering whether someone sometime might have asked if any of this made sense. What rational purpose of state or national policy after all was served by taking irrigation practices that had proved successful in Nebraska and California, for example, and then trying to extend them to a desert?

Few people raised these questions when the state was growing up, and Clark doesn't really pursue them here, though he concedes at the end of his study that the future of New Mexico doesn't involve a choice among viable options so much as a picking over of what he calls "least worst alternatives." His text in the main, however, is non-judgmental, his approach reportorial and his consequent achievement encyclopedic. It is unlikely that anyone will ever attempt to duplicate this assembly of records and events. And so, as the definitive work on its topic, all of the commentators and scholars to come will necessarily have to mark the value of their contributions by the extent to which they deviate from or reinforce the basic line of Clark's narrative.

In trying to set the terms for life on this harsh land, Clark amply demonstrates that New Mexico enjoyed considerable advantages at the outset. By remaining isolated from the main thrust of Western settlement for so long and by coming so late into the Union, the state benefited greatly from the experience of its neighbors as well as from its own distinct heritage. Whereas California, for example, struggled to engraft legal principles that were more appropriate to rainy England, the early territorial legislature in New Mexico, being unencumbered with many Anglo members, had no difficulty adopting as statute the customs and practices for life in an arid land that had been formed over generations of Spanish and Indian experience.

Central to that system of law was a perception of the necessity for public ownership of water and a fundamental grasp of the inseparability of surface and underground water supplies, legal principles which California came to only after many years and then, at least so far as ground water is concerned, only incompletely. It is this same vision of the unity of the public interest in all aspects of water use that informs Clark's approach. He means to tell the story whole and to show how each step in the evolution of the state's water policies touched every other aspect of New Mexico's development.

Clark's exhaustive interest in the historicity of New Mexico's problems should not deter the casual reader more interested in contemporary issues. More than half of this big book is devoted to modern problems, a fact that accurately reflects the nature of New Mexico's growth. The trouble may have started early in the century, when the state first threw over the principles embodied in its heritage and invited the federal government instead to take over the cause of local water development--an opportunity the Bureau of Reclamation seized by promptly erecting an irrigation project that failed before it could even be opened. And the seeds of New Mexico's long-term difficulties were certainly sewn in the 1920s when state and federal agencies joined hands in a systematic but legally dubious attempt to strip the state's Native Americans of their historic water rights. But the strains didn't really begin to show until after World War II, when the state courts belatedly recognized that all of New Mexico's surface streams had by then been fully put to use and New Mexicans themselves began to realize that their future lay in what they could pump out of the earth.

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