Unmappable Variables: GIS and the Complicated Historical Geography of Water in the Rio Grande Project

Part of the Historical Geography and Geosciences book series (HIGEGE)


At the turn of the twentieth century, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Rio Grande Project radically changed irrigation practices and the legal structure of water deliveries along the entire reach of the Rio Grande. The construction of Elephant Butte Dam and other modern water infrastructure in the Lower Rio Grande Basin of New Mexico set the stage for a complicated relationship between water governance, agricultural landscapes, and water users. Geospatial technologies are uniquely poised to quantify the observable effects of spatial change, but are limited in their ability to explain the human causes or repercussions of such phenomena. Using a sequential exploratory research design, pairing GIScience analysis of contemporary agrarian change and models of observed landscape transformation with historical-critical physical geography, we explore how water governance has precipitated ecological change and the loss of cultural knowledge, political change and the exacerbation of inequalities, and legal conflict leading to political battles downstream of the dam. We conclude with a discussion of the limits of geospatial models to capture the complexity and nuance of agrarian patterns and demonstrate the value of a mixed-methods approach for analyzing the formative and lasting ramifications of water governance in the Lower Rio Grande Basin.


Rio Grande Project Water governance Sequential exploratory design GIS Historical-Critical Physical Geography 


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA

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