Driving through the Navajo Reservation in Arizona I became lost looking for the highway. I stopped at a house perched on a hill with a Beware of Dog sign and, accordingly, a furiously barking dog greeted me. Unsure, I waited and that’s how I met Raymond. I explained I was visiting on an ecology field trip two days earlier where we learned to measure water output and catalog diversity in a set of springs on the reservation. I was awestruck at how an entire ecosystem teeming with life can exist in a tiny roadside spring. Raymond offered to show me the location of his uncle’s spring which functioned once as their community’s sole source of clean water. Though it had dried up a few years earlier, he escorted me down a dry dusty track to a small Juniper tree. With no running water at home, Raymond now drives twenty miles to the nearest town each week to purchase water.
Springs have been essential to human survival since the beginning of our existence. Historically, paleo-indigenous people traversed the deserts walking from spring to spring. Early Spanish explorers and later European pioneers relied on many of the same springs, often settling where water was reliable. Water has been central to the beliefs and practices of American indigenous cultures, and to this day, several western tribes perform private ceremonies at springs they consider sacred. Today, for many except those who live without running water or those who want to bottle and sell it, springs are unseen or under-recognized.
Beautiful, damaged and gone, the remaining arid land springs in today’s American Southwest face combined threats of climate change and aquifer overuse. They are among the richest in plant and animal diversity on earth and are an important barometer by which we can assess the health and condition of the underlying aquifers that support the desert ecosystem. This project is a blend of art and science animating a narrative of springs that speaks to water scarcity in the west – both what it is today and what it might become if we fail to take action.