Dividing the San Juan: Water Inequality in the Southwest (dissertation, in progress)*
The Problem: In recent years, high-profile cases — such as the poisoning of Flint’s water supply — have drawn public attention to injustices in our water system. The headline-grabbing stories often focus on problems in urban centers, but many rural areas have been suffering from water crises decades in the making. Problems include inadequate infrastructure, corporate water grabs, contamination from agricultural runoff and extractive industries, and groundwater depletion. To further complicate matters, we know that disadvantaged social groups are more likely to suffer from unsafe, unaffordable, or unavailable water. How did we get here?
The Study: My dissertation research seeks to understand the formation of water inequality in the southwestern US. Despite legal and historical claims to a large portion of water resources in the West, Indigenous communities face significant challenges related to water quality and infrastructure. These conditions stand in stark contrast to the history of Euro-American development in the region, where complex water projects have supported economic development and urbanization. Water conflicts between urban and rural places frequently lead to claims of injustice from rural communities, yet we know little about how race and rural status matter for the emergence and development of these problems.
The Case: Congress authorized the Navajo Indian Irrigation project and San Juan-Chama project in 1962 as part of the Colorado River Storage Project. Together, these projects divided the waters of the San Juan River between the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico. The Navajo project aimed to help develop agriculture on Indigenous lands, while San-Juan Chama transferred water to central New Mexico to support urban growth, primarily in Albuquerque. Although approved together, the two projects diverged sharply in their construction progress and funding. New Mexico’s project was finished ahead of schedule in 1973, and the San Juan River now provides up to 90% of Albuquerque’s drinking water. The Navajo project, by contrast, remains unfinished today and suffers from perpetual underfunding and deteriorating infrastructure. By studying how the the San Juan River was divided between social groups and urban and rural places, this study will provide a deeper understanding of the relationship between race, space, and environmental inequality.
Data & Methods: Sociohistorical analysis based on archival material and government publications on the development of the two water projects.
*Research supported by a dissertation grant from the Rural Sociological Society.