It’s no secret that the current population of the American West uses a lot of water and goes to great lengths to get it where it’s most needed. The supply is finite, and the demand keeps growing.
The story isn’t a new one.
In the A.D. 1200s, the convergence of a booming population and a severe drought pushed inhabitants of the Four Corners south toward Hopi, Zuni, and the northern Rio Grande valley. For centuries before that, though, they subsisted capably in this arid landscape.
Colorado Experience, a Rocky Mountain PBS series, has mined the knowledge of archaeologists, including three from the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, for ways in which the ancestral Pueblo experience might inform 21st-century life and water policy.
“Living West: Water,” aired on Thursday, Oct. 30. Watch it online.
In the half-hour program, Zuni tribal member Dan Simplicio, who serves as Crow Canyon’s laboratory education coordinator, described how the Zuni people emerged into the harsh sunlight of the surface world covered with moss and with tails and webbed hands and feet. Petroglyphs in the Southwest show those aquatic traits. The Sun Father sent two of his sons, who were stars, to correct the people's appearance to their current state, much better suited to the high desert that was their new home.
Although the landscape here was dry, the climate was hospitable for the ancestral Pueblo people who moved into the Four Corners region to grow corn, beans, and squash, said Kristin Kuckelman, now Crow Canyon’s research publications manager. Kuckelman supervised excavations at Goodman Point Pueblo, where part of the episode was filmed.
"The landscape that they found when they first arrived in this area is largely the landscape that you see here today: pinyon-juniper forest, sage parklands," Kuckelman explained. "It just so happens that this is prime agricultural area, so when they became agriculturalists and they began growing maize, it must have been a very appealing area to them."
“Archaeology has a lot to teach us in terms of the way people living in southwest Colorado harnessed and used water resources,” said Grant Coffey, a supervisory field archaeologist at Crow Canyon. “They understood the land. They understood what the impacts of specific constructions would be."
They had detailed understanding not only of the needs of the community but also in terms of what was possible from the local topography and environment, Coffey said.
“A little bit of that reverence, a little bit of that appreciation, would serve us well too.”
The ancestral Pueblo people of the region were “a population that used water in a very different way than we do today," said Scott Travis, chief archaeologist at Mesa Verde National Park.
“Life here can be very good if you’re careful and respectful of the resources you have, but in times of scarcity, we have to make hard decisions about how we live in places like Colorado," said State Historian William J. Convery, of History Colorado. “The ancestral Puebloan people give us a lesson in how those kinds of decisions can play out over time.”
"There were certain things going wrong by 1260," Kuckelman said. "1280ish, everybody's gone. Everybody leaves."
“The choices they faced became narrower and narrower,” Convery said.
“I think these folks did a pretty good job. I think a lot of people did see the writing on the wall and left,” Kuckelman said.
“[T]he folks that stayed behind thinking they might be able to weather [the drought]―they didn’t take a good risk, they didn’t take a good gamble, it didn’t work out for them,” Kuckelman told viewers. “So today I think we want to make sure we’re not in the camp of, 'Maybe it won’t turn out so bad. Maybe in the future it will turn out ok.' "
“We can’t afford to do that any more.”