- Bitter Waters: The Struggles of the Pecos River by Patrick Dearen
By Patrick Dearen. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. Pp. 257. $29.95.
Halfway through reading this compelling book, I had already decided to adapt it for my course on the environmental history of the American West. Bitter Waters nicely deals with an often overlooked, but certainly beautiful, part of the West—the Pecos River and its watershed in northern and eastern New Mexico and west Texas. And Patrick Dearen really knows this watershed! He knows it well enough to tell its history from a variety of different perspectives: ecological, agricultural, social, and political. Combined, they tell a very complete story of the Pecos, one that would not only be useful for environmental history classes, but also for courses (in general U.S. history, history of science, geography, and political science) on the American West, the Southwest, or Texas or New Mexico state history. Geographers and environmental historians will especially appreciate the fine array of maps that Dearen provides in the front part of the book—for the watershed region as a whole, and specific place maps for various sections of New Mexico and Texas as the river flows southeast.
Readers in this wide variety of disciplines, as well as an interested readership in the general public, will find Dearen’s writing style one that will keep them engaged and interested as they read on. For example, he describes the Pecos River as something that, for more than four centuries, has been “sometimes nurturing, sometimes destroying, but always serving up hope, controversy, and challenges” (p. 3). That description sums up nicely the themes Dearen deals with in Bitter Waters. They are reflected in the fourteen short chapters that move the book along like the Pecos itself, flowing from the Sangre de Cristo mountains down to the Texas plains. Chapters such as “A River in Peril,” “River of the West,” “A Barren River No More,” “A Fiend Unleashed,” “A Diminishing Supply,” “Struggling Species, Clashing Stakeholders,” and “A Requiem of Hope” all speak to the various angles of river history that Dearen researched. His methodology is sound, relying on archival materials and public records, as well as hitting the appropriate secondary sources.
Especially important, in my judgment, is Dearen’s presentation of so much information and analysis on introduced species, e.g. salt cedar (tamarisk) and its choking effects of the Pecos River. Most of that discussion is in Chapter 6, but salt cedar comes back many times to haunt the river and its users, the history and current situation of which appears in later chapters as well.
Another important dimension of Bitter Waters is its regional but trans-state approach to the environmental history of a river. Here, especially in Chapter 7, Dearen gets into the whole complicated history of interstate [End Page 175] water compacts, policies, and politics that have colored the relationship between New Mexico and Texas, often creating the kind of “bitter waters” about which he writes. The bitterness only worsened when flooding occurred and when salinity levels rose, both of which adversely affected downstream agriculture. Then the blame game really began, and relations between the two states could be cold and litigious.
The many photographs that illustrate the book (the author’s own photography) are another nice touch. Many readers will not have visited the Pecos River watershed, but the photos here will help them know the region and the river, or at least be able to “see” their environs. I applaud the Press for being able to include so many at a time when budget cuts and cost constraints in publishing have become the norm. But the author, and perhaps especially the Press, can hardly be forgiven for perpetuating what I had thought and hoped was a long-dead error: calling the U.S.-Mexican War simply the “Mexican War” (p. 25) as if there were just one side involved.
But other than that, there is little to criticize about this fine text on watershed environmental history. In fact, reading it made me want to go visit and explore the Pecos’s...