Bitter Waters: The Struggles of the Pecos River

Bitter Waters: The Struggles of the Pecos River

by Patrick Dearen

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Rising at 11,750 feet in the Sangre de Cristo range and snaking 926 miles through New Mexico and Texas to the Rio Grande, the Pecos River is one of the most storied waterways in the American West. It is also one of the most troubled. In 1942, the National Resources Planning Board observed that the Pecos River basin “probably presents a greater aggregation of problems associated with land and water use than any other irrigated basin in the Western U.S.” In the twenty-first century, the river’s problems have only multiplied. Bitter Waters, the first book-length study of the entire Pecos, traces the river’s environmental history from the arrival of the first Europeans in the sixteenth century to today.

Running clear at its source and turning salty in its middle reach, the Pecos River has served as both a magnet of veneration and an object of scorn. Patrick Dearen, who has written about the Pecos since the 1980s, draws on more than 150 interviews and a wealth of primary sources to trace the river’s natural evolution and man’s interaction with it. Irrigation projects, dams, invasive saltcedar, forest proliferation, fires, floods, flow decline, usage conflicts, water quality deterioration—Dearen offers a thorough and clearly written account of what each factor has meant to the river and its prospects. As fine-grained in detail as it is sweeping in breadth, the picture Bitter Waters presents is sobering but not without hope, as it also extends to potential solutions to the Pecos River’s problems and the current efforts to undo decades of damage.

Combining the research skills of an accomplished historian, the investigative techniques of a veteran journalist, and the engaging style of an award-winning novelist, this powerful and accessible work of environmental history may well mark a turning point in the Pecos’s fortunes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806154602
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 03/09/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 11 MB
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About the Author

Patrick Dearen, winner of the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America, is an authority on the Pecos and Devils Rivers and the author of ten nonfiction books and twelve novels, including The Big Drift, The Illegal Man, To Hell or the Pecos, and Crossing Rio Pecos.

Read an Excerpt

Bitter Waters

The Struggles of the Pecos River

By Patrick Dearen


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5460-2


A River in Peril

Down a snaking river they marched, Antonio de Espejo and a Spanish contingent exploring uncharted wilderness in New Mexico. It was July 23, 1583, and for sixteen days they had followed its currents after setting out from Cicuye Pueblo, located a mere thirty miles from the river's source in 13,000-foot mountains.

Already, expedition members had dubbed this buffalo country stream the Rio de las Vacas (River of Cows) and noted its "very good water." Now, however, as they forged through marshes and stopped on the riverbank, another description seemed more fitting.

"We ... named this place El Salado, because the river is more salty here than before, on account of the brackish water from the many springs that empty into it," wrote Diego Pérez de Luxán.

It was far from an aberration. By 1590, when Gaspar Castaño de Sosa struck the waterway's lower reaches, Spanish explorers had cursed the entire rio as the Salado. The "Salty River" it was, this Pecos, and for more than four centuries its currents have continued to beckon: sometimes nurturing, sometimes destroying, but always serving up hope, controversy, and challenges.

"For its size," observed the National Resources Planning Board in 1942, "the basin of the Pecos River probably presents a greater aggregation of problems associated with land and water use than any other irrigated basin in the Western U.S."

For millennia, peoples have either endured the river's issues or succumbed, pawns in an environmental game set in a largely arid region subject to devastating drought. The situation endures in a twenty-first-century world more dependent on water than ever. As Debbie Hughes, executive director of New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts, stated in 2010, "Water is the lifeblood of Texas and New Mexico."

Yet the issues with the Pecos are intensifying, affecting not only Texas and New Mexico but northern Mexico as well, even as ballooning populations place new demands on the river's limited resources. If the Pecos basin and the Rio Grande corridor downstream of the Pecos–Rio Grande confluence are to be as vibrant as possible, then solutions to the ills of the Pecos must be found.

"If we don't begin to do something about it, it's going to become a wasteland," noted B. L. Harris, onetime acting director of Texas Water Resources Institute.

However, the Pecos looms even more challenging than in 1955, when a Pecos River Commission study identified seven major problems:

• Decreasing flow

• Frequent destructive floods

• Recurring droughts

• Poor water quality

• Sedimentation

• Scarcity of adequate storage sites

• Large non-beneficial uses of water by natural water-loving plants

Six decades later, only two of these issues (frequent floods and scarcity of storage sites) are no longer considered significant, while in certain sections additional problems have arisen, including:

• Salt loading of Amistad Reservoir

• Golden algae

• Depressed dissolved oxygen

• Balancing and managing demands

• Addressing the needs of aquatic species, especially endangered species

• Development and lack of stewardship

• Recreational overuse and abuse

• Thickening of watershed brush

• Indifference by principals or inability to work together

With such section-specific issues, no single solution is possible. Yet the future of an enormous expanse — from northern New Mexico to the mouth of the Pecos and on down the Rio Grande to the Gulf of Mexico — may hinge on resolving the Pecos River's most damning problems. These are deeply rooted in geology, geography, and the history of man's progressive impact on the river, and resolutions are unlikely apart from an understanding of these factors.


River of the West

The Pecos River rises at 11,750 feet on the slope of Santa Barbara Divide and 12,660-foot Santa Barbara Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in north-central New Mexico. Other major peaks that cradle the fledgling stream include Truchas Peak (13,102 feet), Chimayosos Peak (12,841 feet), Santa Fe Baldy (12,622 feet), and East Pecos Baldy (12,529 feet). Alpine tundra blankets the watershed's extreme heights, but average annual precipitation of forty inches (including 115 or more inches of snow) nurtures other vegetative zones dominated successively by Engelmann spruce (9,000–12,000 feet), Douglas-fir (8,000–10,000 feet), ponderosa pine (7,000–9,500 feet), and piñon-juniper (lower elevations).

Only twenty-four miles northwest of the river's head, and 5,800 vertical feet below it, the Rio Grande carves an imposing gorge through a highland plain. The Pecos and Rio Grande soon go their separate ways, diverging as much as 175 miles in southern New Mexico, but they are fated to meet again.

Fed by snowmelt, springs, and monsoon rains, the Pecos plunges over dramatic Pecos Falls within its first four miles and tumbles on down out of the Sangre de Cristos' elongated horseshoe of thrusting peaks and massive ridges. Along the way, the singing river joins with rushing tributaries such as Jarosa Creek, Rito del Padre, Jacks Creek, Panchuela Creek, Winsor Creek, Rio Mora, Willow Creek, Holy Ghost Creek, Glorieta Creek, and Cow Creek. By the time the Pecos reaches Interstate 25 at San Jose, New Mexico, the river already has plummeted 5,681 feet, more than half the full two miles it will drop over its entire course.

Bearing southeast from San Jose, the Pecos finally escapes the shadow of lesser summits and picks up two tributaries that drain the east slope of this Rocky Mountain subrange. Tecolote Creek flows into the stream at Tecolotito, while the Gallinas River joins the coils of the Pecos eight miles east-southeast of Dilia. Sixteen air miles downstream, where Esteros Creek flows into the Pecos from the northeast, a dam impounds the waters of Santa Rosa Lake, the uppermost of several major reservoirs on the river.

In central Guadalupe County, two historically important rivulets flow into the Pecos within a span of four air miles, but their waters come at a price. Fed by alkaline springs, El Rito de Agua Negra Chiquita (El Rito or Santa Rosa Creek) enters from the east and Rio Agua Negra from the west. Even in 1902, the resulting impairment to the quality of the Pecos was not lost on observers:

"Above the Agua Negra Chiquita, near Santa Rosa, the water is practically free from alkali," reported New Mexico territorial governor Miguel A. Otero in 1902, "but this stream and every one south of it add to its alkaline character."

Indeed, below a second reservoir, Sumner Lake in north De Baca County, the Pecos squirms into Chaves County and strikes the Permian Basin, a vast region covered by an inland sea 250 million to 300 million years ago. This sea deposited layers of salt, primarily halite and gypsum, which have always bedeviled the Pecos. Salts from these underlying beds, which are up to a thousand feet thick, work their way into both groundwater and surface water and will have a dramatic effect on the river's water quality over the next several hundred miles.

In central Chaves County, aptly named Salt Creek intersects the Pecos from the west, and equally descriptive Bitter Lake shadows the river a few miles northeast of Roswell. East and southeast of Roswell, small natural reservoirs known as Chain Lakes and Bottomless Lakes collect water that finds its way into the Pecos and adds to its woes.

"These lakes are so strongly impregnated with salts that the water is hardly suitable for drinking purposes," wrote James G. Needham and T. D. A. Cockerell in 1903.

Forty-six to eighty-three miles west of this section of the Pecos looms a major watershed that receives up to forty inches of precipitation each year: the Sacramento Mountains and their subranges, the Sierra Blanca and the Capitan Mountains. The mountains crest at 11,973 feet, more than a mile and a half above the Pecos valley, and streams drain this complex and its adjacent highlands en route to the river.

The Rio Hondo meets up with the Pecos immediately east of Roswell, and the Rio Felix does likewise two miles northeast of Hagerman. Twenty-seven miles south, in a marsh near Dayton, the Rio Peñasco finds the Pecos, while Brantley Lake, another twelve miles downstream, submerges the Pecos–Seven Rivers confluence.

Meanwhile, the land has grown increasingly arid with the Pecos River's migration through New Mexico. The village of Pecos registers sixteen inches of annual precipitation, and Santa Rosa and Fort Sumner about fourteen inches, while the Roswell-to-Loving stretch records only twelve or so. Nevertheless, underground water and diversions from the Pecos give rise to vital farming enterprises in the Artesian Basin of southeastern New Mexico.

From north to south, the Artesian Basin stretches the full length of the Sacramentos, while from east to west it extends from near the Pecos to a point three-quarters of the way toward the mountains. The basin holds not only a shallow alluvial aquifer, but a rechargeable artesian aquifer in San Andres limestone.

Southeast of the Sacramentos soars the Guadalupe range, an ancient fossil reef that represents another significant Pecos watershed, although subject to only eighteen to twenty-one inches of annual precipitation. The mountains' eastern escarpment, less than twenty miles from the river in the Malaga area, grows in prominence as it angles southwest to touch the sky at 8,749 feet at Guadalupe Peak, seven and a half miles inside the Texas line. Although numerous arroyos bleed down toward the Pecos valley, the most important drainage is Black River, which rejuvenates the Pecos two miles northeast of Malaga.

Only four winding miles downstream of the Black River juncture, the Pecos negotiates a dramatic, 4.5-mile horseshoe known as Malaga Bend. Here, brine springs can poison the Pecos with hundreds of tons of salt every day, making this innocuous-appearing coil a major culprit in the river's downstream salinity.

Only two and a half miles shy of the Land of Enchantment's southern boundary, the northeast-trending Delaware River merges with the Pecos. By the time the Pecos enters Texas at Red Bluff Reservoir, it has fallen almost 9,000 feet in accomplishing 289 crow-flight miles from its Sangre de Cristos origin and has drained about 25,000 square miles of New Mexico. Moreover, the annual precipitation of its bordering lands has dropped by 75 percent, a circumstance that soon grows more severe. Only thirty air miles below the state line, a meager nine inches of precipitation a year grace Mentone, Texas.

Meanwhile, the Pecos has absorbed another significant salinity contributor, Salt Creek, also known as Screwbean Draw. The only perennial tributary of the Pecos in Texas upstream of Girvin, Salt Creek trends out of the southwest and flows into the river three miles by channel below Red Bluff Dam.

In southern New Mexico, the Pecos already has developed a decided sinuosity, but as the stream crosses West Texas, it constantly changes course as though lost and wandering. Repeatedly bending back on itself, the river may flow in every conceivable direction at one point or another within a single brief stretch. Its compass always spinning and confounding, the Pecos in Texas averages a three-to-one ratio of river miles to air miles, giving the stream the reputation of "the crookedest river in the world."

Maybe the Pecos is just loath to cross the Chihuahuan Desert, which, by some definitions, grips the river in north De Baca County in New Mexico and maintains a chokehold on both sides of the stream on into central Crane County in Texas. Thereafter, the Pecos generally defines the desert's east boundary.

From the Trans-Pecos section of this wasteland rise the Davis and Glass Mountains, sky islands that create additional watersheds and give birth to major springs (some no longer flowing) in the Pecos basin. The Glass Mountains exceed 6,200 feet in elevation and provide the underground water source for Fort Stockton's Comanche Springs, which once flowed steadily into the Pecos tributary of Comanche Creek. The adjacent Davis Mountains, with a high point of 8,378 feet at Mount Livermore, receive an average of almost nineteen inches of annual precipitation, considerably more than the typical twelve inches that accumulate along the river's middle Texas section.

Tributaries that feed out of these west-lying highlands include Toyah Creek, which intersects the Pecos 3.5 air miles downstream of the Interstate 20 bridge. Only a few miles from the river, Toyah Creek strikes a playa known as Toyah Lake, long known for its high salinity. Another arroyo, appropriately named Salt Draw (not to be confused with the two Salt Creeks), also feeds into Toyah Lake. Considering the impact on the Pecos from underground seepage and occasional surface inflow, the situation does not bode well for water quality downstream of the Pecos–Toyah Creek juncture.

The salt load at New Mexico's Malaga Bend is unmatched, but the section of river from the mouth of Toyah Creek to Girvin (about seventy-seven straight-line river miles) constitutes the longest sustained stretch of highly saline water anywhere on the Pecos. Evidence of an underlying salt bed is apparent at Juan Cordona Lake (two miles north of the river in south Crane County), at Soda Lake (six miles north of Girvin), and at so-called Salt Flat on the river's west side a few miles north-northwest of Girvin. Unsurprisingly, salinity at Girvin routinely spikes at 12,000–14,000 ppm (parts per million), 34–40 percent that of seawater.

Eight air miles downriver of the U.S. Highway 67 bridge near Girvin, Tunas Creek delivers Glass Mountains runoff to the Pecos, and the character of the land coincidentally changes. Heretofore in Texas, the Pecos has slithered through a broad plain with only occasional low bluffs fronting the stream. Now, however, hills begin to close in on the Pecos from either side, and they grow more dramatic with every downstream mile. Nearby limestone-capped buttes tower several hundred feet above the banks, and by the time the waterway reaches Iraan, highlands a few miles away loom as much as 800 feet over the Pecos badlands.

The situation persists at Sheffield, southeast of which Live Oak Creek merges with the river. A running stream except in prolonged drought, Live Oak represents a rarity: a historically perennial tributary draining the Pecos basin's east side.

Another twenty straight-line miles downriver through rugged canyons, the Pecos is revitalized by Independence Creek, perhaps the river's most important Texas tributary. Sixty miles long, Independence originates away to the west toward the Glass Mountains and provides the Pecos with not only a constant flow, but what ranchers know as sweet water — nonsaline water that sharply contrasts with the river's brine.

One Independence spring alone, Caroline Spring, gushes with 3,000–5,000 gallons per minute (gpm) and accounts for approximately 25 percent of the tributary's contribution to the Pecos. The infusion of fresh water increases the Pecos River's volume by 42 percent and reduces total dissolved solids (a measurement of salinity) by half. Aquatic species often struggle above the Independence confluence, but below it they have the potential to thrive.

Spectacular canyons await downstream, with replenishing springs as well as frequent gulches that spill down from hewn heights. The most prominent side canyon is Howard Draw, which yawns open to the Pecos two miles southwest of Pandale after a 77-mile journey down through three counties. Draining much of the extreme southeastern Pecos Basin, Howard has fifteen tributaries of its own.

Beyond Howard, the Pecos canyons grow more awe inspiring as the river cuts a deep snake track through broken tableland, a near wilderness seared by the sun. By the time the stream reaches the U.S.-Mexico border at Amistad Reservoir and empties into the Rio Grande (which has come down from the Rockies on a long journey of its own), the Pecos has traced 926 serpentine miles. Taking its place as the fifteenth longest river in the United States, it has drained about 19,000 square miles of Texas and 44,300 square miles in all.


Excerpted from Bitter Waters by Patrick Dearen. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. A River in Peril,
2. River of the West,
3. The River That Was,
4. Furrows in the Ground,
5. Seeking a Major Reservoir for Texas,
6. A Barren River No More,
7. A Water Compact Is Ratified,
8. A Fiend Unleashed,
9. A Water Pirate Alleged,
10. A Forest Too Great,
11. A Diminishing Supply,
12. Struggling Species, Clashing Stakeholders,
13. A Salty Potion,
14. Requiem or Hope,
About the Author,

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