Rising at 11,750 feet in the Sangre de Cristo range and snaking 926 miles through New Mexico and Texas to the Rio Grande, the Pecos River is one of the most storied waterways in the American West. It is also one of the most troubled. In 1942, the National Resources Planning Board observed that the Pecos River basin “probably presents a greater aggregation of problems associated with land and water use than any other irrigated basin in the Western U.S.” In the twenty-first century, the river’s problems have only multiplied. Bitter Waters, the first book-length study of the entire Pecos, traces the river’s environmental history from the arrival of the first Europeans in the sixteenth century to today.
Running clear at its source and turning salty in its middle reach, the Pecos River has served as both a magnet of veneration and an object of scorn. Patrick Dearen, who has written about the Pecos since the 1980s, draws on more than 150 interviews and a wealth of primary sources to trace the river’s natural evolution and man’s interaction with it. Irrigation projects, dams, invasive saltcedar, forest proliferation, fires, floods, flow decline, usage conflicts, water quality deterioration—Dearen offers a thorough and clearly written account of what each factor has meant to the river and its prospects. As fine-grained in detail as it is sweeping in breadth, the picture Bitter Waters presents is sobering but not without hope, as it also extends to potential solutions to the Pecos River’s problems and the current efforts to undo decades of damage.
Combining the research skills of an accomplished historian, the investigative techniques of a veteran journalist, and the engaging style of an award-winning novelist, this powerful and accessible work of environmental history may well mark a turning point in the Pecos’s fortunes.
“Bitter Waters is full of facts and numbers but is a comfortable read. As author Patrick Dearen shows, the current and future demands on the Pecos will most likely bring on some great challenges.”—Rick Tate, Texas Commissioner, Pecos River Commission
“A thought-provoking study. To all who realize that water will be more priceless than gold, this is a must-read.”—Ray Willis, New Mexico Commissioner, Pecos River Commission
“Bitter Waters offers an artesian well of information that will captivate the leisurely and scholarly-minded reader alike. From rich descriptions of the river's ecology and geomorphology to colorful narratives of its present-day apologists and adversaries, author Patrick Dearen gives a clear-eyed and unfettered picture of the river's historical and contemporary struggles. Whether you worry about the future of our wild things and wild places, depend upon the river for your land or your livelihood, or simply care for a tough old, meandering river that has loomed large in the history and settlement of the West, this book needs to be at the top of your reading list.”—Carter Smith
Executive Director, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department