Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Sustainability: An Old Story for Modern Times

by Kathy Holian, Santa Fe County Commissioner-elect, District 4

We live in “interesting times”: The interconnected challenges to our supplies of energy, water, and food grow daily. For example, the skyrocketing cost of energy is largely behind the push to drill for oil and gas in Santa Fe County, threatening the water in our aquifers. Increasing competition from Asia spurs rising energy costs, causing the price of food to soar. Climate change affects the whole planet, but it is exacerbated in the Southwest, where precious food and water supplies have become ever more precarious as population soars.

Hard times for people – including people in New Mexico – is nothing new. Recently I read William DeBuys’ book “The Walk” and was struck by the story of the people who first settled Las Trampas, a village about 40 miles north of Santa Fe (then capital of the province of Nuevo Mexico). In 1751, the governor awarded the Trampas Land Grant to twelve heads of families who lived in the poorest barrio of Santa Fe. In those days, the Comanches carried out periodic raids on the city, harvesting animals, women, and children as though they were crops. The motivation behind the Grant was not entirely generous, in that it was intended both to help relieve population pressure in Santa Fe (too many mouths to feed) as well as to provide a defensive bulwark against Comanche raids. Very little is known about the early details of the settlement, other than the story told by the buildings they constructed. Homes were built wall-to-wall, creating a fortified plaza. The adobe church Santo Tomas Apostol de Las Trampas, beloved by today’s tourists, is one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial mission architecture in Northern New Mexico. Since the people were nearly all illiterate, there are no written records of their hardscrabble life, constantly threatened as they were by starvation and Indian raids. Nevertheless, we know the tenacious little community survived.

In 1816, the Trampaseños built a mill outside of their compound area – a symbol of hope. Obviously, one of the most critical factors in the location of the village was its water source, a stream that flows down from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, from which flows the life of the people: their crops grow in the fields irrigated by the acequia diverted from it; their livestock graze in the pastures on either side; and the mill that ground the flour from grain they grew was powered by it. The community’s construction of the mill was the clearest sign that the people in the village had “arrived.” Comanche raids would never again defeat them. The people had prospered in a way they could never have imagined when they were living in their poor barrio in Santa Fe. They were now wealthy enough to feed themselves and sell their flour to their former neighbors in the city.

Shifting to a local, self-sufficient economy is crucial to surviving the growing challenges of the future. But the story of the Trampaseños teaches us that we can actually thrive in the face of difficulties, if we stand united as a community.

Water is probably our most pressing problem in the high mountain desert. Fortunately, water is intrinsically a sustainable, renewable resource, unlike fossil fuels. Unfortunately, our present sources of water – wells and surface water from rivers – are not without limits, including the growing energy costs for pumping. While Buckman Direct Diversion water will be coming on line soon, there are no other major new sources of sustainable fresh water in our future, apart from re-use, rainwater harvesting, and conservation. The great thing about water is that it can be re-used over and over again; hence, new developments must be required to have small-scale shared water treatment facilities that provide re-used water for landscaping. Collected rainwater can also be used for landscaping, home gardening, and with proper treatment, even drinking water. We would do well to encourage these two sources, even in outlying areas of the county that now rely on wells, in order to reduce the strain on water drawn from our aquifers.

These water initiatives can be addressed through County and City land use codes, incentives (such as subsidies for retrofitting older homes and rental properties), and community education. Finally, our community must insure that enough water is available for local agriculture.

With increasing energy costs and increasing degradation of our ecosystem, local agriculture becomes even more critical for our community. Protection of agricultural water rights and prevention of urban sprawl is necessary for local farmers. Moreover, local governments must enact programs that enable food-growers to make a decent living. The County can help farmers by partnering with local banks in making low-cost loans available for new equipment, helping open more local markets (e.g., schools and hospitals), and setting up a cooperative health insurance program for farmers. For our children’s sake, in addition to nutritious locally grown food, their schools should offer programs to train the next generation of farmers.

Self-sufficiency in energy is the third pillar of resilience. By controlling our own community electric grid, we could encourage the use of local sources of renewable energy. Since we now get our electricity from a far-away coal-fired power plant, only 30% of the energy in the coal actually makes it to Santa Fe to do useful work. By guaranteeing generous incentive payments to small companies that produce power locally from renewable sources, a publicly owned electric utility’s energy source would immediately be roughly three times more efficient, and create good local jobs, too. Since a public grid is not beholden to stock shareholders, it can promote conservation without worry about loss of profits.

Moving to a local, more self-sufficient economy in water, food, and energy will require a strong partnership between County and City governments, local businesses, local banks, and, most importantly, the people. People in a community have always relied on each other to survive and even prosper, as we learn from the inspiring story of the Trampaseños.

This article appeared in 2009 Sustainable Santa Fe: A Resource Guide, Earth Care International, November 8, 2008.

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