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Why are people still living in the western US with the constant threat of climate change?

New Mexicans like me are weighing our future in a fast-drying climate.

New Mexico is experiencing an extreme and, in some areas, extraordinary drought.
Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Four years ago, my fiancé, Colin, and I decided to move to New Mexico. We had been living in a secluded river valley in western Colorado, but both of us were venturing into self-employment and thought it’d be easier in a bigger town. So we rigged our pickup with a load the Beverly Hillbillies would have admired — furniture, lamps, buckets full of pottery glaze — and drove south. I was happy. I’d waited my whole life to make this move.

Every summer of my childhood, my family had made a similar migration, leaving our duplex in Illinois and driving west. We’d spend a couple of months in the scrappy adobe house on a hill in Santa Fe, where my dad grew up. Though we had a great life in Chicago, this house cast a spell on all of us. The hill’s edges looked soft and green from afar. Up close, the land was spiny and jagged, a pile of pinkish granite with squat trees and tough succulents. It seemed even then that though I didn’t live here, it was where I came from, the place I always wanted to get back to.

Colin and I are married now. Colin is generous and goofy, a self-taught professional potter with impossibly pale blue eyes. He grew up in Ohio and loves mountains and the space of the western horizon, but he doesn’t pine for the high desert. He notices with annoying frequency how little water Santa Fe has. He likes big trees and he likes to grow food, and he wonders if big trees and homegrown food will exist here in 50 years. Or in 20. Or in 10. These are reasonable concerns, I know. I’m a journalist who covers climate change, and I’ve written thousands of words about the Southwest’s hot, dry future. Yet whenever Colin fretted, I found myself punting, offering half-baked reassurances that we’d be fine.

And then this year, winter never came. I watered the trees in our yard in early February. On April Fool’s Day, I hiked to 11,000 feet without snowshoes. A friend and her husband who were planning a spring trip to Montana said they wanted to scope it out as a place to live. “We can’t have all our money tied up in property in a place that’s going to run out of water!” she told me.

I began to worry, too, that after a long and frequently distant romance, I’d married us to a town without reckoning with the particulars of its future. How likely is this place to become barren? How soon? Will we have the tools to endure it? We’d eloped.

Now, in this rapaciously dry year, a quiet question grew louder: What are we doing here? I felt a sudden need to understand what Colin and I stood to lose as the heat intensified and the world dried out. And I wondered if we should leave.

After our wedding, Colin and I planted an elderberry bush, his favorite plant, in our yard in Santa Fe. We had found a variety native to New Mexico, and our parents had added soil from their homes to the plant’s pot during the ceremony. Putting it in the ground was our first act as homeowners.

We had started to look at real estate soon after moving, though Colin was reluctant to make the financial and physical commitment. I had promised that our move to New Mexico didn’t have to be final. We’ll give it five years, we said. We looked at loads of houses before we found one: It was a bank-owned wreck with a leaky roof, a bathtub that drained into the yard through a haphazard hole in the wall, and a mess of once-wet dog food still caked to the kitchen floor. Yet it had “good bones,” as they say, and we knew right away that it fit. More than money, we had time and the innocent enthusiasm of first-time renovators.

We thought we’d move in within months. Instead, it took more than a year. I learned how to tile and chiseled fossilized gunk from the floors. And Colin got to entertain his fantasy of raising his own house, rebuilding walls, replacing windows, building a shower, plumbing sinks.

Neither of us slept as well as we used to. We were stressed by our irregular paychecks. We’d begun a splintered conversation about having children. Our house was on a well. At first, we thought this was a liability, but people told us it was an asset: In Santa Fe, city water is expensive and well water is free. We looked into hooking up to the city system anyway, but it would have been pricey, and the guy who replaced our sewer line advised us to just wait until our well ran dry.

Conversations like this felt like little warnings. One truism about the future is that climate change will spare no place. Still, I suspect the threat of warming feels more existential in New Mexico than it does in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes. Drought has gripped the Southwest for 19 years, more than half my life. It’s been dry in two ways: First, less water has fallen from the sky. And second, it’s been unusually hot.

By the time we arrived in Santa Fe, the Jemez Mountains west of town had become an archetype of the murderous impact climate change will have on forests. Drought, heat, and insect outbreaks had killed 95 percent of the old piñon pines over large portions of the southeast Jemez. This year, the moisture in living trees in the Santa Fe National Forest has hit levels lower than those you’d find in lumber at Home Depot. The fire risk was so high by June 1 that the US Forest Service closed all 1.6 million acres of the forest to the public.

The forecasts for our water supplies are equally grim. The Colorado River’s flows are down about 20 percent since the start of the drought, and scientists believe the remarkable heat is responsible for up to half of the decline. By the end of the century, some say, the amount of water in the Southwest’s rivers could plummet by 50 percent.

We could see the power of the parched air and scorching sun in our own yard. Our elderberry seemed to melt in the midday sun. It sacrificed limbs, their leaves shriveling brown and crisp. Is it a bad sign if our wedding plant dies? We joked about it, but it felt like an omen. Last year, Colin divided its roots, and he transplanted part of it into the shade this spring, a kind of insurance against death.

Aridity, in one way or another, has pushed or drawn people to New Mexico for centuries. Pueblo peoples came in part because a punishing drought strained their societies in the Four Corners and it was time to start anew. In the late 1800s, white Easterners came because the aridity healed. These so-called “lungers” suffered from tuberculosis, and doctors believed dry air and sunshine could sap the damaging moisture from patients’ lungs.

In the 1940s, my dad’s parents, Polly and Thornton Carswell, were living in Carmel, California, a countercultural refuge from their buttoned-up hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Polly was a free spirit, a weaver, who kept a few demure beige dresses to wear back to Springfield. Out West, she wore flowing skirts, colorful aprons, heavy turquoise jewelry, and orange lipstick, and carried a basket instead of a purse.

A couple years after they moved to Santa Fe, they started a restaurant. They screen-printed the menus and hosted jazz concerts there, and when business was slow, they pulled the boys out of school and took road trips through Mexico. They bought the house on the hill and were laid to rest beside its back door.

Their story taught me about where I came from, both the place and the people: brave, adventurous, entrepreneurial folk who took risks and led lives that were, above all, interesting. Yet when I asked my family about this story recently, hoping to understand it better, another version emerged. Thornton told my Aunt Linnea that the family had moved to New Mexico in part for protection from Polly’s troubled mind. Once, when my dad was an infant, Thornton found Polly carrying him toward the ocean, intending to give him to it, to let the waves swallow his tiny body whole. In this version of the story, Thornton came here to escape the ocean, drawn by the sense of security that came not from what New Mexico had but from what it lacked: too much water.

As this spring wore on, though, the thirsty days piling up, this force that had lured my family here with its power to heal, and apparently, to protect, began to feel like a real threat. Halfway across the world, amid another deep, multi-year drought, the residents of Cape Town, South Africa, were anticipating “Day Zero,” when the city’s taps would run totally dry and residents would have to line up for water rations. Could that happen here? And if it did, what would become of this home we were building?

The house was our shelter, our first big project together, but it was also a foundation. We’d both chosen fulfilling careers that paid poorly, and if we wanted to travel, go out to eat, support a future child, make self-employment viable long term and generally not live in perpetual fear of our bank balance, we figured we should grow the modest money we made.

I got in touch with Kim Shanahan, the head of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association, to gauge how reality-based my fear was. It wasn’t that long ago that the developers and contractors he represents had faced their own demise. In 2002, a nail-bitingly dry year that followed several pitiful winters, Santa Fe’s aboveground reservoirs dipped precipitously low, and the city was draining groundwater through its wells at frightening rates. The city implemented water restrictions, and the citizenry aimed pitchforks at developers. If there wasn’t enough water for the people already here, they felt, there wasn’t a drop to spare for new homes. The city council debated whether to stop issuing building permits.

This year, though, for whatever reason, the city didn’t seem to be facing imminent crisis. Were water cuts or construction moratoriums on the horizon? Shanahan didn’t think so, and he told me something had changed: toilets. To deal with the water shortage and to avoid a building moratorium, the city purchased 10,000 low-flow toilets and offered them free to anyone who would replace an aging one. Then the city added a water conservation fee to utility bills that funds rebates for things like efficient clothes washers, fixtures, and rain barrels. The water saved through the program goes into a “bank,” and today builders have to buy offset credits from it so that water use doesn’t rise with new construction.

All this has allowed the city’s population to grow even as water consumption has declined. Combined with rules that limit outdoor watering and pricing that incentivizes conservation, Santa Fe has reduced its per capita consumption from 168 gallons per day in 1995 to 90 today. Crucially, it has also diversified its supply, piping water from the Colorado River Basin to the Rio Grande, allowing the city to rest wells and turn groundwater into drought insurance. So far, it’s worked.

“On a personal level, yeah, this is frightening,” Shanahan admitted. “I’ve never seen it so damn dry. But I’m feeling more bullish about our ability to be sustainable with diminishing resources.”

The city doesn’t have much choice but to try. An in-depth 2015 study of the risk climate change poses to Santa Fe’s water found that as the population continues to grow, the city and county’s supply could fall short of demand by as much as 3 billion gallons by 2055. That’s a lot — about equal to the city’s current annual consumption.

Strangely enough, though, learning all this made me less fearful. It helped to define the problem, and reminded me that we were agents in this mess, not blind victims. In that sense, the drought in Santa Fe had a strange upside: It forced the conversation. And the result so far seems to prove journalist John Fleck’s principle of water: When people have less, they use less. Even my husband was more adaptable than I’d expected, worrying as I had that the high desert would never satiate his desire for leafy canopies and grapefruit-size garden tomatoes. He told me recently that when we started looking at houses, he decided: Screw the consequences. “Look, if we all run out of water and lose everything,” he told a friend, “that’s just going to be part of our story.”

Colin had confronted the uncertainty by making peace with it. I was searching instead for objective information to confirm my fears that our move was misguided, our own act of climate change denial. But the question of whether we should stay or go was turning out to be complicated; even the angles that seemed straightforward weren’t. Shanahan pointed out that if water limited the city’s growth, the value of our home might go up.

That’s how supply and demand should work, Grady Gammage, a lawyer, water expert, and sometimes developer in Phoenix, told me. But the idea that there’s not enough water to build houses? “That’s going to scare people, so it might constrain demand.” Claudia Borchert, Santa Fe County’s sustainability manager, remarked over coffee that she’d just fielded a call from an anxious homeowner asking if his property value was safe. “Boy, in the short term, yes,” she told him. “In the long term, all bets are off. It won’t necessarily be that there’s no water, but will people want to live here?”

It occurred to me that the drought is a little like the Trump presidency. You know it’s bad, and that it could herald much worse. But in the present moment, life feels strangely normal. Sure, draconian water shortages and the demise of our democracy are real possibilities — not even distant ones — but you’re not really suffering. Not yet. It’s hard to tell how much you will. If this is your reality, as it is mine, you’re probably not an immigrant, or a farmer, or a tribal member, or poor, or sick, or brown-skinned. You’re lucky. The crisis is real, and it’s not.

In this limbo, I felt a melancholy that was both hard to identify and hard to shake. A hot day no longer felt like just a hot day, something that would pass. On a cloudless Saturday in May, shoppers at a plant nursery griped about how Santa Fe was becoming like Albuquerque, the sweatier city to our south. The heat seemed imbued with finality, a change that could not be undone.

My grandmother Polly died the year before I was born. After my dad’s birth, she suffered bouts of what the family calls “sickness.” Her illness was mental — schizophrenia, manic depression, or some other condition doctors didn’t understand. With her glasses on, she could see St. Peter. She wailed in bed. One night at the hospital, she continued to wail after doctors had pumped her full of enough sedatives to, as they told my parents, “kill a horse.”

My parents used to rent the house on the hill during the school year. Once, a renter abruptly moved out mid-lease, saying that Polly’s ghost had appeared over her bed in the middle of the night, growling at her to “get out.” As a kid, the haunting didn’t scare me. I thought it was awesome and hoped it was real. I secretly hated the renters: Nice as they were, I didn’t want them in our house or on our land.

My attachment to the place was always instinctual. My parents occasionally talked about selling it, daydreaming about what they’d do with the money. I reacted to these conversations defensively, like a coiled snake. I’m an only child, and I told them that when they died, it was what I would have left of my family. The house and the land would be my memory.

“Querencia,” the late New Mexico poet and historian Estevan Arellano has written, “is a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn. Folklore tells us that ‘no hay mejor querencia que tu corral,’ there is no better place than your corral — a typical saying that alludes to where someone is raised, the place of one’s memories, of one’s affections, of things one loves and, above all, where one feels safe.”

Staying put may not mean that Colin and I lose what we’ve put into our home, and it may not mean running out of water. But it may mean bearing witness to the slow death of the Rio Grande. It may mean biting our nails with the rest of the city every June, hoping this won’t be the year that a mushroom cloud of smoke rises from the Santa Fe Mountains, which are primed for a destructive fire. If the mountains do burn big and hot, and the tourists that are Colin’s customers stay away, it may mean recalibrating his business plan. It may mean more summer months when we can’t escape to the cool of the forest because the forest is closed. And it already means grappling with the more unsettling feelings that accumulate from these smaller worries.

In 2005, the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia” to characterize the peculiar modern condition caused by circumstances like these — “a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’” Solastalgia describes a loss that is less tangible than psychic. “It is the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault,” Albrecht writes. “It is manifest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging to a particular place and a feeling of distress about its transformation.”

When the drought began in the late 1990s, my parents and I had stopped spending summers in Santa Fe. A couple of years into the drought, my uncle called to report that the piñon trees surrounding the house on the hill were dying. The news of the tree die-off inspired apprehension and a kind of fear — my dad said he was afraid to go back.

The total transformation of landscapes — and of a community’s sense of place — isn’t an abstract possibility in New Mexico. It’s already happened to communities in the Jemez Mountains, where a series of wildfires have torched the forests. And so on a Sunday afternoon, I visited a woman named Terry Foxx at the home she’s evacuated twice during recent burns, interrupting her afternoon sewing to ask about the aftermath.

Foxx has studied the fire ecology of the Jemez since the 1970s, and after the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire, which burned more than 400 homes in Los Alamos, she also became something of a community therapist. She collected fire stories and published them in a spiral-bound book. She gave community lectures on how life returns to the forest, and about the spiritual toll of landscape loss.

“There was grief, just intense grief,” Foxx told me. “Some people would say, ‘I have no right to be grieving because so-and-so lost their home.’ I thought, wait a second, we have all lost something. It was that mountain that used to have trees on it.”

Some people in Los Alamos did flee, though. Foxx told me about one couple who left because they loved trees and couldn’t stand to look at a mountain of blackened sticks. They moved to Colorado, right back into the pines. Others rebuilt, the fire strengthening their resolve to stay. When we experience loss, Foxx said, “It’s like, ‘What can I do?’ You either feel a deep sense of depression or, if you can, you find some way to help.” Two men formed a group called the Volunteer Task Force that rebuilt trails, planted trees, and pelted the burn scars with golf ball-size mash-ups of clay and wildflower seeds made by schoolchildren, nursing home residents, and others. It gave people a sense of ownership, Foxx told me, and of hope.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I believe we need to be doing everything we can to prevent polluting and changing our area. But regardless of what we do, nature is here. I say nature adjusts to change easier than we as humans do.”

The answers I sought, I began to understand, could not be found in climate studies, water plans, or market analyses, because my questions, my doubts, weren’t ultimately about logic or pragmatism. They were about love.

After leaving Terry Foxx’s House, I drove to the forest and hiked to the edge of a burn scar. I sat below a gnarled old ponderosa that had survived the fire, facing a hillside that looked like a moonscape, and wrote Colin a letter.

Ecologists call wildfires “disturbance events.” In nature, disturbance often gives rise to new life. The large aspen stands in the Sangre de Cristos facing Santa Fe, the trees whose colors help us measure the seasons, are there because a fire raced over the mountain, killing conifer stands whole. My marriage had been through its own disturbance event. For months, our conversation about children had not gone well. I wanted a child, but the idea made Colin anxious. He wasn’t ready yet, and unsure that he ever would be. I was hurt by his reluctance.

One night, I blurted out a tearful and angry ultimatum, without knowing whether I meant it. It bruised him in a way that one apology, then another, couldn’t quite heal. Eventually, though, the difficult conversations grew more honest and empathetic. We turned toward each other, closing the raw space between us, and as we did, we felt more in love. Still, the issue was unresolved. Some days, I was fine with that. Others, I’d be struck by a sudden and profound sadness.

The night before had been one of those nights, so I decided to write what was hard for me to say. I told him that if we didn’t have a kid, I still wanted to buy the weedy dirt patch next door together and build a studio and make it beautiful. And if we did have a kid, I wanted Colin to teach them to make buttermilk biscuits, to hear them squeal as he chased them around the yard like a deranged zombie. He cried when he read the letter, and then he baked me a perfect apple pie.

I began to think that our relationships with places aren’t so different from our relationships with people. They are emotional and particular. Over time, there is tumult. That has been true for as long as people have lived on the side of volcanoes or in deserts or on top of tectonic faults. What’s both hard and hopeful about this new tumult is that, unlike an eruption, a natural drought cycle, or an earthquake, it’s not inevitable. The change is the result of the choice we are making to continue our carbon binge.

The disturbance in my marriage had ultimately deepened our commitment to our joined lives. And maybe the same should be true of our relationships with our places. A better response than running might be to spend more time walking the forests and canyons of the landscapes we love, even as they change, to engage more deeply, to fight for them. After all, leaving might not be a form of protection but just another form of loss.

After my parents retired a few years ago, their desire to come home overrode any fear of what they’d find there. They’re living in the Santa Fe house again — back in their “corral” — and the tree die-off wasn’t as bad as they’d feared. The junipers are toughing it out, and some piñons survived. A decent number of piñons are even re-sprouting in the shelter of old junipers.

There was something else, too: a weed that popped up near the front door. My dad didn’t recognize it, but he didn’t pull it up. Then one day, it erupted in purple flowers. It was a native wildflower called desert four o’clock, and he thought it might be Polly, signaling her approval that they were back. Every year since, it has returned. And every year, it has bloomed.

This essay is adapted from an article in High Country News.

Cally Carswell is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and a longtime contributing editor at High Country News.

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