The Rio Chama Basin: Land, Water and Community

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This monograph of the Rio Chama basin in northern New Mexico resulted from a larger project awarded to New Mexico State University by the National Science Foundation, Dynamics of Coupled Natural-Human Systems Program. The project was titled: Acequia Water Systems Linking Culture and Nature—An Integrated Analysis of Community Resilience to Climate and Land Use Changes. The grant was made to New Mexico State University with a sub-award to the Center for Regional Studies (CRS) at the University of New Mexico (UNM). As part of the multidisciplinary research team, the CRS investigators selected the Rio Chama watershed as a study area with the aim of mapping the social ecology and cultural evolution of the region during the early Puebloan societies of pre-1540, the period of Spanish colonial and Mexican land grant settlements to 1846, the rapid changes of the territorial period under U.S. jurisdiction following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, and concluding with the issues of growth and sustainability along the middle Rio Grande valley after New Mexico statehood in 1912. The goal was to profile how different human actions have altered the landscape of the Rio Chama, a major tributary of the Rio Grande, in terms of water, grazing areas, forested uplands, and other natural resources. The study focused on the complexity of human-natural systems interactions, specifically the dynamics of change on temporal and spatial scales in a multi-cultural regional geography characterized by episodic cleavages and conflicts over the use of natural resources. In particular the monograph examined the Rio Chama basin as a contested eco-cultural terrain that continues under stress into the modern era as population growth and economic development in the urbanized counties along the middle Rio Grande have increased the demand for water. Much of the water supply delivered to urban consumers originates in the mountains of the rural counties of northcentral New Mexico and southern Colorado including water imported from the Colorado River system. The final chapter of the monograph recommends a water policy future based on a perspective that water is a public environmental commons for sharing by Rio Grande stakeholders across watershed boundaries and political jurisdictions. For research implications, the study concludes that the use of social-ecological history is not as an end account of research, but as the beginning of a variety of new studies that open up questions about the dynamics of human-natural relations and how past couplings have legacy effects that can help stakeholders better understand present conditions and examine alternatives for the future.


Research funding for the project was provided by a National Science Foundation award to New Mexico State University (Grant No. 101516) with a sub-award to the Center for Regional Studies (CRS) at the University of New Mexico.

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