G. Emlen Hall, author of the single best book written about New Mexico water politics, High and Dry: The Texas-New Mexico Struggle for the Pecos River, has co-authored a new book on the Rio Grande. If High and Dry reads like a great legal drama– think Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent – the new book, Reining In The Rio Grande, reads like an epic tragedy.

Hall’s co-authors are Fred M. Phillips, director of the hydrology program in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, and Mary E. Black, an anthropological linguist, writer and editor of Southwest Hydrology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Together they lay out the history of the river from its origins in the geologic shifts of the Proterozoic Age to its current condition of being girdled in concrete, parceled out according a legal agreement between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, and guzzled by booming cities.

Reining in… shows us the Pueblo and early Hispanic societies, which both revered the river and lacked the technology to do it any lasting harm. It shows how the advent of railroads, big cattle operations and industrial-scale farming in the late 1800s led to clear-cutting, overgrazing and what were even then called “monster canals.” This, what the authors call “the heedless use of a delicately balanced natural system,” led to the silting of the river, the seasonal disappearance of its water, and—an only apparently contradictory phenomenon—devastating floods.

Black, Hall and Phillips are at their best when showing how the massive—often brilliant—engineering projects and legal compacts designed to solve these problems and mold the Rio Grande to service our desires have had paradoxical results—solving some problems, but creating others. If the book seems to dissolve at the end into an almost frantic sorting and discarding of scenarios for meeting the demands now placed on the river, that may be because there are no good answers.

“Something has to give,” the authors write. “The question is not whether the Rio Grande Valley of one hundred years from now will be habitable—it almost certainly will be—but whether it will be a place where people will want to live.”

But Reining in… isn’t a total slog into despair; it’s also a collection of great stories and portraits of people. It’s not every book that can sandwich the lyrics of a Cochiti hymn, the disappearance of an entire town, socialites for women’s suffrage, and young engineers crossing the Rio Grande on an icy raft between the same covers. It makes you realize that, to some extent, the history of New Mexico is the history of our water.

Covering such a long swath of time, in satisfying detail, in 203 pages plus 34 pages of notes and bibliography, makes for some dense reading in places. Yet, while complex, Reining In… is neither a textbook nor a tract, and it’s never boring. If you want a thorough understanding of New Mexico’s stretch of the great river and its dilemmas, this compact book is the place to start.

– Jack King