STEALING WATER
~ Nita Pomeroy



Families each have their own sacred oral

histories.  Mine  was no different.  One of

my favorite stories concerned Frances

Martin Pomeroy, my third or fourth great-

grandfather.  I remember clearly sitting in

a family reunion, listening to the story of how this grandfather was a member of a group settling in what was to become Mesa, Arizona.  Since a reliable source of water is necessary for growing crops, especially in the desert, Grandfather Frances rode his horse all over the proposed site, trying to figure out how to get water up to the mesa.  He noticed the framework of canals left by previous inhabitants, realizing the great benefit of only having to dredge the overgrown canals rather than dig them.  Canals which had sustained an extensive population for nearly 1500 years, then mysteriously abandoned by an earlier group of people whom we now know as the Hohokam.

In the South West United States, there are those who have become alarmists about the northward movement of people across our border with Mexico. Descendants of the european settlers seem to have the mistaken idea that this hemisphere was vacant, just waiting for their ancestors to “discover” and pillage it.  So constrained by their narrow viewpoint based on exploitative consumerism, they have difficulty understanding lives lived more gently on the earth.  The fact is that millions were living here on the eve of Columbus’ arrival in the western hemisphere.  It was not an extensive monoculture but thousands of different tribal groups, each speaking their own language and each with their own customs.   These many people enjoyed free mobility as shown by migration patterns both short and long, near and far.  Trade routes were wide-ranging and well-traveled as shown by the variety of goods observed during excavations of abandoned living sites.  The area from central Mexico and the U.S. Southwest has been such a corridor for millennia, but not the only one, of these migrations.  Along with seeds for squash. beans, corn and cotton, people brought simple irrigation techniques.

At the same time that Jesus lived, the Hohokam People were established in the Phoenix Basin of Central Arizona.  By 600 CE, they were building large-scale water delivery systems to a population increasing not just from birth rates, but also from continued migration between central Arizona and central Mexico, as well as neighboring regions.  The increasing food requirements demanded engineering and constructing technologically advanced irrigation systems using hundreds of miles of canals.  This was accomplished without the use of computers, calculators, heavy earth moving equipment or any modern tools.  They most likely used human labor and tools made from stone, wood and fiber.  Excavated earth from the canals was probably moved using woven baskets and mats.  Approximately 800,00 cubic meters (m3 ) of earth were removed to create the many miles of canals. An additional 400,000 m3 of silt was removed during canal maintenance over its lifetime.

Their engineering was so precise that the canals deepened at a gradient necessary to move the water fast enough to keep the silt suspended, yet slow enough to prevent erosion of the channel walls.  The canals were also designed to minimize the impact of the change in volume of water lost through evaporation, seepage and use. This was done by manipulating canal width and depth and by changes in the amount of water allowed through the system. 

A variety of techniques were developed to manage the flow and level of water within the system.  Weirs, partial dams, were used to increase the height of the river in order to fill the main canals.  Head gates were installed to regulate the water entering the main canals and thus the direction of flow, whether into or out of the system. They also prevented the water from flowing back into the river. Distribution canals took the water from the main canals to the fields.  At the junctions of the main and distribution canals, diversion gates controlled the flow of water toward the fields.  Water control gates called “tapons,” located on both the main and distribution canals, caused the elevation of the water in the canals to rise to a level that ultimately enabled it to flow onto the individual fields.

This whirlwind discussion is not meant to be a precise and in-depth discussion of irrigation theory and practice.  It is intended to show the depth and breadth of the fifteen centuries of canal development and maintenance that the european settlers benefitted from.  There was no mention of the tremendous amount of human effort, thought, ingenuity and sacrifice which was involved in the appropriated irrigation system.  Frankly, I think the settlers did not realize the truly marvelous nature of their find. 

But there is also an even darker side to this story of human achievement. This dark side was codified in the Papal Bulls of the 15th century which gave “permission” to europeans to lay claim to land occupied by those determined to be less “civilized” than themselves. It is not, and was never, something we euros ever really thought about. To my great embarrassment and shame, it did not enter my consciousness until the early morning of July 4, 2010.  I got on facebook, the first Fourth I was going to unobserve and I came across an entry posted by Mark Eagleheart.  It was Johnny Cash singing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” 

Of course I was going to listen: it was Johnny Cash, and I was familiar with Ira’s story.  Or so I thought in my euro-centric mind-set.  Here is the link – see if you can identify the new information which finally broke through my long-held denial.  Some of the lyrics are painful, but the song is worth listening to if you have never heard it before.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9f22Awruts00


Yes, the water which my grandfather used for the Mesa canals was stolen from the downstream users.  Specifically, it was stolen from families like that of Ira Hayes and the many other Native People using the Salt River for irrigation -- and had been used continuously for nearly 2,000 years. What is terrible is knowing that what my grandfather did is just a small bur very personal example of what occurred all over Turtle Island.

However, what causes the greatest outrage lies within the context of the Sonora Desert. You see, there, Stealing Water is a death sentence.