Apr 16, 2021 | OPINION | By Julia Chase | Photo by Bibi Powers
On the Wednesday afternoon of fifth block break, my housemates flocked to Taos Ski Valley while I set up my monitor in preparation for four days alone with my cat. I don’t like to ski anymore, and I had to get some work done on an ongoing research project.
I planned to spend the block break ordering unreasonable amounts of overpriced Italian food on Postmates and working on my research.
The research is on New Mexico’s acequias, which are community-based irrigation systems and institutions that have evolved to be complexly wrapped up in the state’s larger, antithetical system of water law.
Acequias are gravity-fed, earthen ditches that were brought to New Mexico by Spanish colonizers in the 16th century and continue to be operated by parciantes (irrigators) who share the water for crop irrigation.
The continued ability of acequias to operate around water as a shared resource is incredible considering that the state’s water code defines water as a private resource belonging to individuals, but this is not to say that acequias aren’t threatened by the state’s larger political economic system of water law and increasing urbanization and development.
It was coincidental that I spent the block break writing about acequias while my housemates were shredding the slopes in Taos, a ski destination and recreational economy that puts strain on acequias downstream of the mountain in the Taos River basin.
Taos offers skiing of world-class caliber, and while annual snowfall has dropped in the past decade due to climate change, it normally averages at 300 inches and attracts thousands of skiers and snowboarders every year.
Resort and urban development began to greatly threaten acequias in the latter part of the 20th century, and researcher Sylvia Rodriguez, born in Taos herself, wrote back in 1987 that “there is no longer water in the Rio Hondo to accommodate all irrigation needs throughout the growing season.”
In the 1960s, real estate development in the Taos ski valley, combined with the state’s water policy, caused water rights to be transferred from parciantes to developers of the ski valley, causing water to be diverted away from the croplands and leaving the remaining Hispano famers with less water to irrigate in an already drought-prone region. This process continues today.
There was a moment during that block break when I unintentionally found myself peeping Instagram stories of friends downing fireball shooters on the mountain as sad photos of abandoned plots of land now too dry to be irrigated, largely due to resort developments like those in the Taos Ski Valley were pulled up on my laptop screen.
I would never judge somebody for pursuing outstanding recreational endeavors that I myself used to enjoy, but I think that it is important for skiers and snowboarders in the arid West to understand that it is not just their winter sports that are threatened by climate change.
Small agrarian farmers and irrigators are greatly impacted by increasing climate-induced drought, and popular ski mountains like Taos intensify these impacts because the development that necessarily surrounds the mountain requires massive consumptions of water from rivers.
This is not to say that Colorado College students shouldn’t enjoy skiing Taos, and me choosing not to ski that block had nothing to do with an ethical dilemma. It is to say that there should simply be more awareness among skiers of the impacts of ski mountains on rural peoples in the downstream region whose livelihoods, founded upon centuries-old socio-cultural traditions, depend on sacred water that travels down from the mountains.
I think that it is a privilege to have the means to ski the West in your free time, and those with this privilege should simply be cognizant of the larger collective impacts of the ski valleys that they economically support and recreationally enjoy.