The Weight of Water

Overlooking the Galisteo Dam

Overlooking the Galisteo Dam

In an effort to raise awareness about water conservation among visitors to the Land of Enchantment, the Santa Fe Watershed Association and HospitalityGreen have asked me to pen a series of essays about my experiences living off rainwater in the New Mexican desert. Here is my first of four essays, the Weight of Water:

Water weighs 8 pounds per gallon. If that doesn’t sound heavy, you’ve never been hiking in the desert with a day’s worth of drink on your back. I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, but I didn’t learn the weight of water until I moved to New Mexico, where water is rare and precious and worth its considerable weight in blue gold.

In New Mexico, I lived off the map, caretaking a place in the wide open deserts just south of Santa Fe. This place was more than a house. It was an Earthship: an off-grid passive solar adobe, adrift on acres of land. The house wasn’t connected to the outside world by wires or pipes, only a long dirt road. My power and my water both came from the sky and if I wanted to run out for milk, it was a two-hour round trip into town.

The Road to Town. Santa Fe is hiding behind the Cerrillos Hills.

The Road to Town. Santa Fe is hiding behind the Cerrillos Hills.

The Earthship was an isolated place, but it afforded rare freedoms. Out there, I could hike in any direction to the horizon, down endless paths across open country. Between the trails, the place was wild, undulating madly in plunging arroyos and tilted sandstone. On foot, my favorite way to travel, it was a tremendous, uncharted place.

The Blonde Coyote overlooking our Big Backyard

The Blonde Coyote overlooking our Big Backyard

As well as I came to know the landscape around me – its contours and secrets – so I came to know myself: I knew exactly how much electricity I burned in a day, how much water I let drain in a shower, how quickly I went through a bag of beans, how long I could go before I pined for town, for Santa Fe’s bright colors, its rush of voices, the thrill of a menu, a taste of the outside world. Often, weeks would pass without wanting to be anywhere but out there in all that free open space.

The Blonde Coyote & Bowie with the Coyote Skull

Desert Treasure: The Blonde Coyote & Bowie with the coyote skull I found wedged in a dead juniper tree.

Living in such a wild, remote place has its challenges, the greatest of which was the lack of free-flowing water. The Earthship had no water source – no water lines, no well – other than the sky. The building’s metal roof could collect hundreds of gallons of water during a good rain, the water gushing noisily through the gutters into two 1500-gallon water cisterns buried beneath the house.

Rare Cerrillos Snow

Rare Cerrillos Snow

Of course it doesn’t rain much in New Mexico, on average less than twelve inches per year, mostly in late summer (this year, so far, has loosed less than six). During dry spells I called Joe, a Navajo with a big red truck that dragged an old wheeled water tank. Joe charged $40, cash, for 400 gallons of water, delivered. I mostly used the cistern water for the Earthship’s sinks and shower – the grey water that flowed down the drains went out to water the plants and to fill the toilet – and bought drinking water in 5-gallon reusable jugs. On average, I used around 50 gallons of water a week. The average American household drains more than 350 gallons of water a day.

The Earthship's solar array and rainwater catchment roof.

The Earthship’s solar array and rainwater catchment roof.

On three occasions, twice my first winter and once last year, I turned on the tap and nothing came out. That was when I learned the true weight of water. When nothing comes out of the tap but a desperate gurgling noise, the weight of water is crushing. Suddenly, four walls, a roof, and plenty of food all mean nothing. Without water, you have no home. In the desert, without water, you have nothing.

My backyard cliffs

My Backyard Cliffs, facing the Jemez Mountains

Visitors to Santa Fe seldom know the weight of water, but they’ll soon memorize those ubiquitous signs above every sink in the city: Water is a finite resource, please conserve.

What effect the signs have on people, as they stand at the sink, washing their hands, brushing their teeth, I don’t know. What effect they have once people go home, to places richer in water than New Mexico, is even less certain. I know when I stand at a sink where the water flows free, I am thankful for every drop. Perhaps every now and then, taps in Santa Fe should run dry with an empty, ominous gurgle. Then perhaps more people would feel, know and remember the true weight of water.

I have been away from the Earthship’s extreme asceticism for nearly nine months now, enjoying a winter back east, closer to my roots. But even here, the sound of rain on the roof in the middle of the night is enough to jolt me out of a deep sleep, anxious to check the gutters on the (now nonexistent) rainwater collection system. Every time I turn on the tap and water flows freely, I think of the desert and the awful, crushing desperation of running out. I hope I will feel the weight of water for the rest of my life.

Me & my shadows on the summit of Grand Central Mountain in the Cerrillos Hills

Me & my shadows on the summit of Grand Central Mountain in the Cerrillos Hills

This essay appeared last week on HospitalityGreen’s blog. Over the next 12 months, HospitalityGreen LLC, a New York-based firm specializing in environmental and operations consulting services and founder of the nationally recognized Green Concierge Certification program, will provide technical assistance, green team training and customized coaching free of charge to 15 lodging providers in Santa Fe in an effort to encourage better water conservation and reduce the amount of chemicals and other pollutants released into the environment. Read more  about the initiative here.

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
This entry was posted in Hiking!, New Mexico, Photography, Sustainable Living, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

95 Responses to The Weight of Water

  1. Wonderful!!! Would it be possible to print a copy of this for the tourists that wonder why Madrid is full of Port-O-Potties and you have to sit down and place an order at a restaurant to even be allowed near an indoor bathroom? If not, I certainly understand. People really have no idea that when they visit the desert they are visiting the DESERT; water is our most precious resource out here.

  2. I totally understand what you are saying about the water, even though we live in the foothills of the mountains. We have solar panels for electricity and two water tanks to catch our rain water – when it rains. We probably get more rain here than you did near Cerrillos, but even so, we celebrate rain! Grey water is used for outdoor plants and toilets, just as you did. Occasionally we have to have water delivered, but mostly we get by with the rain water – and it is precious, indeed.

    • I loved how rain is such an event in New Mexico- the slightest pitter patter on the roof and everybody runs outside to celebrate! I hear this has been a dreadfully dry year…

      • Yes, very dry. We got caught in the monsoons in the Pecos Wilderness when we backpacked to Pecos Falls in July, so there rain in the mountains, but not so much rain down in the valleys. At Christmas we went to Carlsbad Caverns, camping at Brantley Lake State Park. The southern portions of NM seem especially hard hit. The reservoir at the state park was a mere fraction of what it was a couple of years ago when we were there. It was a challenge to find anything interesting and worthwhile to take photos of. You probably heard about the huge fire in the Gila Wilderness – biggest fire in NM recorded history.

  3. Noel says:

    Great writing. The desert is just “pictures” to most of us, but the weight of water is real after reading this. Sharp.

  4. Donna says:

    Thanks for a great article. Living in the dry Colorado mountains I am used to using little of the precious stuff. I wish all could be so concerned about our only real need, water! It gives life to all it touches.

  5. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’ve lived in a fairly temperate climate my whole life, but last year my region had a terrible drought. It saddened me to see the dying plants – I’d never seen trees going yellow before fall.

  6. tmraware says:

    Reblogged this on tmraware and commented:
    Love to hike here!

  7. candra1983 says:

    beautiful and totally impressing! 🙂 Love that!

  8. I truly understand your respect for and understanding of the water issues of New Mexico, having lived on the Embudo River in Dixon for 5 years and now live in SW Colorado and Arizona. I have been writing and doing artwork related to water recently as I believe in immersing oneself in the place where you live and understanding it as best as possible. Glad you posted this.

  9. Roban says:

    Stumbled accidentally into your blog… but then again accidents really never do happen… moved to Oklahoma from California in 2012 to start building an earthship on 40 acres… enjoyed this blog about the worth of water immensely and wish you the best in your travels this year….

  10. rachelynne says:

    Beautiful post. It really makes you think. Sustainability is so important and it’s so easy to forget the importance of something that we use every day without giving it a second thought. Thanks for bringing this up!

  11. Thank you for an interesting blog. I had the pleasure of staying in an Earthship near Taos last year, and it was quite an eye-opener. And after the massive drought this year, it’s becoming very clear that sustainability inevitably means water sustainability. Hopefully, we are slowly realizing the consequences of ignorantly excessive water use. Hopefully we’re starting to think twice about flushing clean ‘blue gold’ down the stool.

  12. Sydney says:

    Reblogged this on Mama Maji and commented:
    Eloquent and pertinent. An essay on the worth of water that is more than worth a read.

  13. Reblogged this on Bored American Tribune. and commented:
    — J.W.

  14. Dr Mush says:

    Having lived all my life where running taps are plentiful, your essay has made me so much more aware of the weight of water. Thank you.

  15. Frilia Garlinha says:

    Reblogged this on frilia wg.

  16. Love your dogs, love your photos. I need to learn to love water more.

  17. “I knew exactly how much electricity I burned in a day, how much water I let drain in a shower, how quickly I went through a bag of beans,..” Most of us, including me, think little about the amount of resources we are currently using. I will be conscious – at least for a day – maybe longer. Your post is the wake-up call we need as a daily reminder.

  18. Chas Spain says:

    We were always brought up knowing water was rare and precious – so it was odd to move to the UK and be ‘allowed’ to water my garden in summer. Agree with Mark’s comment on ‘blue gold’ and the need for us to respect it far more than we do.

  19. Awesome post! I will keep an on eye on your blog.

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  22. Lemonade Jargon says:

    Hi Mary, I loved this post. I live in Ireland and I am studying geography in college. I absolutely hate how much water is wasted here! Even though we have plenty of rain, a lot of our tap water comes from ground water sources, talk about depleting the aquifer! There is lots of talk about passing peak oil but no one ever mentions the prospect of peak water. Needless to say I enjoyed this post – liked and followed.

  23. What a wonderfully spare existence, one that redefines our concepts of what is “enough” and “not enough.” Poignantly expressed.

  24. ldsrr91 says:

    I read every word of it and it was great, I kept thinking “If my wife would just read this” she drives me up the wall in the kitchen standing at the sink ….. and …. Oh well, you know the rest. Just the other day I was reading something and they were lamenting the fact that it was raining where they were which all of us in Oklahoma would gladly take without complaining some many years into a devastating drought.

    Good reading on a Thursday Morn.

    Copped me a subscription and I will follow you for the rest of the series.


  25. very interesting, thanks for sharing, fascinating!

  26. Wow, what a great nature (and dogs) you’ve got there, stunning! Nice post Mary, really enjoyed reading it 🙂

  27. Makere Stewart-Harawira says:

    Reblogged this on Makere's Blog and commented:
    Living off the grid in New Mexico and coming to know oneself.. how much does water weigh? stunning photos

  28. it’s easy to forget how precious water is when we’ve had one of the wettest years on record here in the UK. The rain has been destructive in some places but will have certainly topped up the reservoirs. We have so much rain, yet we never harness it on a house to house level.
    Wonderful post and writing. And photos!

  29. samohankakkar says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:

  30. Great Shots =) Congrats

  31. cftc10 says:

    Reblogged this on cftc10.

  32. ziyatam says:

    This is a beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I have a much better appreciation of my easy access to clean water, now.

  33. jimceastman says:

    Amazing photos and wonderful post! Thanks for making us realize how much water we need to conserve everyday. Today we’re lucky enough to have a sustainable water supply. So we must learn to conserve it before it’s too late!

  34. Nanook says:

    OMG I MISS THE DESERT!!!!!! Thank you for the beautiful pictures!!!! I just moved to Vancouver, but was raised in Los Angeles. The desert was always my solace!!!! I miss it so much!!!! And I LOVE the Blonde Coyote + Bowie!!!!

  35. Masud says:

    Reblogged this on vizualbusinessbd.

  36. Jaggi says:

    Reblogged this on Jaggi.

  37. kidwriterinc says:

    I like this blog.

    P.S. Want to learn how to make money with your blog? Go here to find out more.

  38. AnnaMaria says:

    Some of us and myself included take a lot of things for granted especially those that we would never think we’d ever run out of. Water is a life line. It’s precious. This was a fantastic read! And so informative. Great work!

  39. I would love to do what you’ve done. I love the Earthships in New Mexico, and I would love to experience the beautiful desert the way that you have.

  40. I dream of living off the grid some day. Slowly, I have seen more people here in the N. East hooking up rain barrels in the warmer months. It makes me happy.

    • Yes! So many people think the off grid lifestyle has to be all-or-nothing. You can take meaningful steps towards self-sustainability without completely pulling the plug. Rain barrels, especially for watering gardens, is a great first step. Thanks for reading! M

  41. Bani Amor says:

    Great piece. So important, well written, with amazing photos. I personally know what it’s like to get stuck in the desert with no water! Now I live in a ‘developing country’, where I take cold showers, and not that often. I know there’s a million folks in the States that never think of this stuff. Glad you’re sharing your story with organizations that are doing what they do.

  42. aipheng says:

    Great writing!! I just came back from India and I appreciate clean water a lot more. But having no water is a whole new level. Thanks for sharing.

    • India is once place that could benefit enormously from more widespread rainwater collection! I’ve read about a few initiatives in rural areas, esp those with high seasonal rainfall and rampant clean-water problems. Thanks for reading! M

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  44. This is a really great essay! I am happy to have stumbled upon it!

  45. OyiaBrown says:

    Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  46. Strange.

    I have NEVER met anyone who did not live off of rainwater. How could you live without rainwater?


  47. It's only P! says:

    As short as it was, this post read like a book. A book that you want to read because every page keeps you glued to it (not just because you want to know how it finishes; perhaps something like Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver). I did not know while I read it that you were a writer, but it certainly does not surprise me! Good luck with your journey to Alaska!

  48. Such a great article. We are spoiled with plentiful water resources in Canada, hopefully they remained as pristine as the majority of them are currently. Water conservation is such an important issue, and will only continue to be more important over time.

  49. Very beautiful pictures! love you dogs!

  50. Reblogged this on .

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  52. Thank you for this–it is wonderful. The efforts we put into conservation in our home now seem so paltry. A good dose of reality makes me feel so rich.

  53. Great post. We live in southern colorado and while we have a well these dry years are frightening. Wild fire doesn’t care if you have a well or not. Water awarness is a way of life for those that are not supplied by a city. Sadly those that live in the cities are not. Don’t get me started on fracking!

  54. Living in Israel, I am often aware of water in the background–and when hiking in the desert, carrying it, I have an inkling of its weight. Your life in the SW US desert sounds fascinating, and similar to what living in the Negev might be like here (or the Judean desert). There’s a line in a song about the desert by David Broza about the closest beer being a three-hour drive…

  55. Dear Mary,
    I make friends with water, I have promised to love and protect it. I re-use it often, and haul it around, from the tub to the garden. Great exercise.
    I began this because it was something simple that I could do to protect the environment.
    Thank you so much for your essay!

  56. Love your blog title and photography! You really captured the essence of the New Mexico landscape. If you wanted to check out what the high desert in AZ looked like a couple weeks ago (quite similar) – stop by at and check out “Ascent into the New Year: Flight testing….” ! I’ll be back when you post more!

  57. Nick says:

    The blonde coyote is beautiful!

    As for Americans and their wasteful tendencies, I believe everyone should live in a remote place without the ease of electricity and/or water just to help expand that understanding of the ways we NEED to adapt to conserve. I try to be as conscious as possible when using electricity and water; I despise waste! Hell, I live in one of the most moist regions of the world, where water flows in abundance, and I still force myself to be respectful and conserving of mother’s nectar, along with food and materials!

    Awesome photos, by the way! 😉

  58. Reblogged this on earthstonestation and commented:
    This post reminded me of much of my own life in the Land of Enchantment. I’ m familiar with and have spent a lot of time in Cerrillos, mostly hunting turquoise but also making movies. In the high desert you learn to be water wise, as we should be everywhere.

  59. Great stuff, I check in now and then and this one struck home. Re blogged at

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  61. Pit says:

    We can easily – with some adjustment – libe without oil, but we cannot survive without water. This is what far too many people don’t realize.
    Best regards from southern Texas, where we were absolutely happy to have had 1.55 inches of rain the other night,

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