Exploring Western Water Infrastructure: Arid Lands 2016 Field Study

July 13, 2016

by Kathryn Jacaruso, Colorado College, ALI Summer Intern

In late June/early July, the summer 2016 ALI crew headed east along the Colorado River Aqueduct for a week of exploratory learning. While the desert field study is a time-honored tradition at the Arid Lands Institute, this year’s adventure included a new twist: an all-women team. Action packed, (appropriately) dry and hot, and extremely rewarding, the field study exposed students and interns to the histories, mechanics, and politics of 10,000 years of water-networks in the arid west. With Hadley Arnold (Director of ALI) at the helm, the week of car ride discussions and historic hikes flew by. We are ready for next year’s trip already!

Read on to find a day-by-day update on where we went and what we learned. Check our all of our photos in the image gallery while you are at it.


Significant Sights: San Gabriel Debris Basin, Mnt. Baldy, Lake Mathews, Hinds Pumping Plant, the Salton Sea, Whitewater Recharge Station, Thousand Palms Oasis, Coxcomb Tunnel on the CRA.

We left LA with a full car, void of free space and men. New to Los Angeles, I quickly jotted down what roads we were using to leave the area, hoping I would orient myself eventually. 

That didn’t last long because, even though we had only been on the road for a few minutes, we had already launched into a sort of casual lecture-slash-discussion-based car-classroom that soon became the norm for the trip.The route Hadley had chosen to leave the city was significant; we passed specific mountain ranges, dams, and reservoirs that represented the eastern most reaches of LA County flood control, followed by western most reaches of Colorado River infrastructure. Learning the history of the Colorado River Aqueduct at the beginning of the road trip served as our foundation for discussing topics such as water law, agricultural practices, irrigation techniques, and much more. We covered a lot of ground on the first day, including a visit to two very different but related bodies of water: Lake Mathews and the Saltaon Sea, both results of the western-reaching Colorado RIver diversions. 

My favorite part of the day was digging into Liz’s dinner (homemade dinga) late at night when we arrived at our campsite in eastern CA where I don’t think it dipped below 90 degrees until 4am.  (It was 113 degrees at Thousand Palms Oasis).


Significant Sights: Blythe CA Agricultural Land, Blythe Intaglios, Parker Dam, Lake Havasu, Chavez Pass.

Hadley had mentioned that there would be a surprise when we woke up at our campsite in Coachella Valley. Sure enough, on our way out we saw several large rocks covered with petroglyphs that are thousands of years old. Liz, an Arid Lands Institute summer research intern and geologist, told us about the mineral reactions that took place in order to produce the amazing rock art. We spent the rest of the morning driving through large scale agricultural developments in and around Blythe, CA. Hadley taught us about drip and flood irrigation and introduced us to the infamous ‘first in time first in right’ law which currently governs seven western states’ access to water from the Colorado River Basin.

Without getting into too much detail, I’d like to explain that piece of legislation a bit further to those of you reading who may not know about it. In 1922, seven states agreed upon a set of laws (the Colorado River Compact) that would help manage the consumption of Colorado River water as demand increased. Part of this compact included the prior appropriation doctrine, which established that ‘he who put his straw in first’ (to use a Hadley metaphor) got to decide how much he needed, without regard for either the supply or demand of others. (When I first heard about the doctrine, I couldn’t believe it was still in place today). 

After meandering our way through fields of alfalfa plants (yes, alfalfa is being farmed in the California desert) we stopped at the Blythe Intaglios, nearby geoglyphs featuring rock art created by indigenous peoples of the southern Great Basin/Colorado River/Mojave area. Next up was a drive north along the Colorado River to the Parker Dam and Lake Havasu. We noticed populated river banks and many people out water skiing... it was above 100 degrees that day. The Parker Dam, where the intake of Colorado River water for LA is located, gave us the opportunity to see one of the five main hydraulic dams along the Colorado River that represent the complexities of the water and energy nexus. That night we came to Arizona, where we camped in the rainy, crisp mountain air.




Significant Sights: Walpi, Sunset Crater, Hubble Trading Post, Chaco Canyon

The bad weather kept us from seeing the sights at Chavez Pass, which would have included a small hike to an area where rocks have been positioned so that sunlight, at certain times of year, will align and spill through, forming a 'sun dagger.'

Instead, we traveled to Walpi, where we toured the oldest Hopi pueblo. We learned that the town of Walpi had recently developed a new hydraulic system to extract water conveniently from the ground near the river. This modern method stood in sharp contrast to the ancient irrigation ditches that we could see on the horizon; these were ditches that in the past supplied manageable tracts of land with enough water for farmers to perform small scale subsistence farming. Now, like many communities across the US, Walpi imports 80% of its food from non-local sources.

Hubble Trading Post had just closed when we drove through, so we kept on straight to Chaco Canyon, where we set up camp for the night.


Significant Sights: Pueblo Alto, Chacoan Roads, Fajada Butte, astro-archaeology presentations at NPS

Friday was a full day at Chaco Canyon. Not only was Chaco Canyon a convenient stop en route to our New Mexico destination, it is also an amazing example of how good design shapes culture. From their stone masonry to the intentional and intricate orientation of buildings, the Chacoans designed an ecologically, spiritually, and economically successful built environment---without a perennial water source.

We drove around the site to get our bearings, and then explored near Fajada Butte, Casa Rinconada, and Pueblo Bonito. In the afternoon, we learned about the Chacoan staircases leading to the larger network of Chacoan roads. These passageways were typically traveled not for trade, but rather for ceremonies that groups of people would come to perform and observe. The day ended with Hadley’s ridiculously good green chilé with cornbread, and an eventually clear starry sky.



Significant Sights: Georgia O’Keefe Museum, Rio Grande, Rio Embudo, Espanola

As we left Chaco Canyon saturday morning, we came upon a flowing wash about 20 yards wide and quite shallow. Hadley jumped out of the driver seat and began to draw in the grey mud a diagram of an acequia ditch system, one of the irrigation methods we have been researching this summer. Hadley explained that acequia systems had origins on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where some of the oldest known civilizations have existed. Transmitted via Arab culture to Spain and then the New World, acequia systems use a combination of ditches and directional gates to invite water to flow first away from the river, then through individual parcels of land along its bank, and finally back to the river again.

Soon we left the muddy wash and continued to Santa Fe, where we picked up ALI enthusiast Josie and ate some New Mexican cuisine (half of the group had not heard of sopapillas so we had to take care of that situation). We drove to Embudo NM, where we spent time with archaeology students from Columbia and Barnard who were excavating sites with Hadley’s friend and summer colleague, professor Severin Fowles. We all enjoyed a big meal outside in the garden, and heard stories of Embudo and its community over the years.  (Editor's Note: Watch Severin discuss Aqua-Sociology: How Water Built Society in Pre-Columbian New Mexico, here.)



Significant Sights: Acequia Communities, Dixon NM.

On Sunday, we took the day to walk the whole acequia with a few local farmers, residents, students, and the commissioner of the Embudo acequia community. We were guided by Acequia del Bosqu commisioner Robert Templeton and poet of New Mexico and Embudo son Levi Romero. While walking the system took most of the day and most of our energy, it was special to be able to gain such specific knowledge from people whose lives and livelihood depend on this method of irrigation. The hyper localized political, physical, and social energy that must exist in order for the acequia communities to successfully irrigate the land seems vibrantly healthy and self-checking compared to the blanket infrastructure that serves as the foundation for modern large scale agricultural areas.



Significant Sights: Rio Chama, Abiquiu NM, Pedernal

Today, we turned on our tail and headed back West, stopping at Rio Chama, a tributary of the Rio Grande. At this point, Rio (the pup) was anxious to run around and cool off a bit. The next event involved driving through Georgia O'Keefe's home studio, Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, which served as a supplement to what we had learned at the Georgia O'Keefe Museum in SF a few days before. Geologist Liz was blown away by the view of the volcanic mesa Pedernal, visible from the Abiquiu landscape. An overnight in Winslow, AZ prepared us for our next and last day of traveling.



Back in Los Angeles, we went our separate ways, tired but transformed by our desert experiences. There's nothing like exploring a region in person as you learn about its cultures, infrastructure, environment, and history. Thanks to Hadley and the Arid Lands institute, we were fortunate enough to be able to delve deep into our investigation of water systems in the arid west. For a more visual look into our trip, check out this video that Liz produced along the way.



Guest blogger Kathryn Jacaruso is a visual artist and rising senior at Colorado College. Kat joined ALI as a summer intern. Kat brought her kayaking skills to the LA River this summer, while fellow intern and LA native Liz Plascencia  taught Kit to surf.