Re-establishing ancient agricultural practices: Lessons from the recent past (Part Three)

By Jennifer Huebert In this three part series, several recent efforts to re-establish forgotten or fading agricultural practices were reviewed. The first instalment presented key criteria to consider for an effective revival of these food-production technologies. Three case studies were profiled in the second instalment: runoff agriculture in the Israeli desert, forest gardening in Central America and raised-bed agriculture in the Andean highlands. Each example illustrated a distinct problem with a unique history to consider. In this final instalment, I review how each revival effort addressed these criteria and reflect on the importance of studying the distant past to make informed decisions about the future.

Discussion The three case studies presented—raised-bed agriculture at Lake Titicaca, El Pilar forest gardening and runoff irrigation in the Negev Desert—represent a wide variety of environments and distinctly different agricultural practices. Each project was undertaken at a different point in time, spanning the better part of the past fifty years. To aid in comparing these varied projects, and to contemplate their effectiveness, a list of key points was compiled and will be subsequently discussed.

Cost-benefit considerations Each project attempted to resurrect a forgotten or fading agricultural practice. These methods involve widely varying degrees of time, effort and technology. It is important to consider whether there was a clear benefit for the costs related to these projects (1). In the case of raised-bed agriculture near Lake Titicaca, techniques involved simple tools and uncomplicated practices that required a significant initial investment in labour. At El Pilar, traditional Mayan forest gardening did not require special tools or an intensive labour investment but did require participants to learn very involved techniques. Desert farming in the Negev was more complex than the other two case studies on several fronts; the project would have involved a significant amount of labour and engineering skills if the initial wadis had not already been present. These practices also rely on much planning and precise timing, and are the most technically involved of the three case studies.

Today’s environment In order to establish whether the practices were appropriate for the current environmental conditions, the teams that initiated the raised-bed agriculture and desert wadi farming projects performed background research and experimented to ensure that the forgotten techniques were still viable in these areas. In these projects, teams of specialists first gathered data to evaluate soil conditions, water supply, climate, potential plant species and other factors that would influence crop growth. After viability was established, experiments were undertaken by planting test crops in the fields and studying their growth rates and yields. The experiments were repeated over the course of several years, and techniques were then refined. After demonstrating a measure of success, the methods utilized in these two case studies were taken to a wider audience and other local communities, or other societies, were trained in the practices.

Modern-day communities Several project teams considered the agricultural techniques in relation to the cultures they were working with while planning and implementing these practices. In the El Pilar case, the community was involved at all stages of planning as the practices they were attempting to promote were still in use by indigenous peoples in the area. This project focused on goals set by the community, namely to preserve and promote indigenous Mayan culture and to encourage agricultural practices which they believed were in harmony with the natural environment. People in this area participated in the project willingly and continue to support it (3). Researchers in the Titicaca basin case study had a more difficult task because they were bringing their methods to a community who had seen disappointing results from previous outsider attempts to introduce new food-production technology (as summarised in 2). Because the Aymara and Quecha people of the altiplano had no memory of the techniques the researchers wanted to implement, there was little reason for people to embrace raised-field agriculture as their cultural tradition. Kolata, an anthropologist, performed a significant amount of research studying the indigenous cultures of the region in order to understand their group motivations and learning pathways (4). Both Titicaca Basin teams employed multiple training methods to try to ensure community involvement. They also spent time calculating the labour investment required to practice these methods, and invested much time and energy demonstrating that the techniques would be productive. However, their plans were ultimately received with some resistance and varying degrees of enthusiasm (5).

Sustainability All project teams considered whether the practices had been initially sustainable, and uncovered the reasons they were initially forgotten or disappearing. In the Titicaca basin, archaeological excavations at the ancient capital of Tiwanaku and around the raised beds in the area have led archaeologists to conclude that they were largely used to raise surplus crops for the state. Once these polities declined, the agricultural practice waned and was eventually abandoned (6). However, there are additional concerns regarding the productivity and high labour costs associated with the form of cultivation that these project teams failed to appropriately consider (7). In the Negev desert, the immense effort and skill required to initially build walls and terraces throughout the desert in ancient times is thought to have involved labour coordinated from a state centre (8). Once these structures were in place, no extraordinary amount of labour was needed to farm the desert. However, life in this remote area was abandoned when borders or pilgrimage routes through the desert no longer needed to be maintained. In the case of the Mayan forest gardeners at El Pilar, the sustainability of this cultivation method is evident in the extensive and largely anthropogenic forests of the region (8). This method is only under threat of extinction today when socio-political forces have seriously disrupted the indigenous population’s methods of survival.

Where are these projects today? Over twenty years on, the Negev desert farms were reported to be productive, though the farm at Avdat is no longer actively cultivated. In his concluding remarks on the Negev project, Evenari mused that it would have been ideal to turn the desert into a productive environment for the Bedouin nomads while preserving their cultural heritage (9). While it is not clear that this aim was ever achieved, the model farm that was constructed is now a worldwide teaching and research centre for the study of agronomy, plant and soil sciences in arid environments. It has effected change in arid farming practices in ten different countries (10).

After much media and political attention, several non-governmental organizations were formed around the raised agricultural beds of the Lake Titicaca basin. These practices were hailed as a solution to poverty in the region, but when the leadership organizations fell apart and financial incentives to participate were withdrawn the practices were largely abandoned with high labour input given much of the blame. An extensive post-mortem study of these projects was reported in several books and a number of academic writings that called into question the assumptions and tactics used to try to resurrect these agricultural techniques (7, 11, 12). Kolata has revisited the project in his subsequent research, reconsidering issues of state politics and individual agency in regards to the organization of ancient field labour (5). In his own review, Erickson (13) noted that some farmers in the Titicaca region do continue to practice raised-bed farming techniques, and he has conducted similar experiments in other places with success (e.g., 14).

The El Pilar forest gardening project is still very much a work in progress and criteria to evaluate the success of the revival effort are difficult to estimate at this stage. The cultivars used in forest gardening are recorded in detail, but the specific techniques were not reported and no benchmarks could be located to evaluate progress. However, it is acknowledged that the principles of forest gardening are essentially those of agroforestry, which is a well-established, cost effective and sustainable agricultural practice (15, 16). Evidence that these techniques have been used in the region for thousands of years further reinforces the fact that they are sustainable and productive. A concentrated revival effort may make them flourish again. Ford (3) believes a successful project will ultimately encourage ecotourism to attract and educate a wider audience in the methods and benefits of this type of cultivation.

Conclusions Each of the techniques reviewed has been shown to be productive and sustainable. However, as it was argued earlier, re-established agricultural practices must fit not only with the environmental but also the social and economic systems of the cultures for which they are intended. This is evident in the breakdown of the raised-bed agriculture revivals in the Titicaca Basin. These initiatives did not affect large-scale change in food production practices in the region because they did not fit within the current structure of the societies that were involved. The foregoing hypothesis is also supported by the successes of the Mayan Forest Garden Network. Mayan agricultural traditions endured for millennia and have only recently been threatened because of the breakdown of traditional society. The revival effort to educate people in forest gardening methods is supported, and led in part, by the indigenous population of the area and it has great potential to succeed. The Negev desert farming initiative, the most mature of the case studies presented, provides evidence that ancient agricultural practices can actually be leveraged to solve some of today’s global food production problems.

We have a lot to learn from the past, and archaeology provides a unique perspective on the long-term sustainability of various food production practices. It has been demonstrated that local as well as global communities can succeed in the preservation (or revival) of traditional food-production techniques. Agrarian landscapes are cultural landscapes, and ultimately, part of our world heritage.

Contributor’s Biography Jennifer Huebert is a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland, New Zealand. She is an archaeobotanist with a particular interest in the identification and analysis of archaeological wood charcoal. Her primary research topics include the study of human palaeoecology and the development of arboriculture in the archipelagos of East Polynesia.

The author urges you to become more informed about UNESCO World Heritage designations and the importance of agricultural landscapes in this initiative (see 13).

References Cited

1.         Uphoff NT (2002) The Agricultural Development Challenges We Face. Agroecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production With Participatory Development, ed Uphoff NT (Earthscan, London), pp 3-20.

2.         Erickson C & Chandler K (1989) Raised Fields and Sustainable Agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin of Peru. Fragile Lands of Latin America: Strategies for Sustainable Development, ed Browder JO (Westview Press, Boulder), pp 230-248.

3.         Ford A (2004) Human Impacts on the Maya Forest Linking the Past with the Present for the Future of El Pilar, Report on the 2004 Field Season. Accessed: April 20 2008 http://www.marc.ucsb.edu/elpilar/brass/chron/fieldr/report04.pdf.

4.         Kolata AL (1996) Tiwanaku and its Hinterland: Archaeology and Paleoecology of an Andean Civilization (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington).

5.         Kolata AL, Rivera O, Ramirez JC, & Gemio E (1996) Rehabilitating Raised-Field Agriculture in the Southern Lake Titicaca Basin of Bolivia. Tiwanaku and its Hinterland : Archaeology and Paleoecology of an Andean Civilization, ed Kolata AL (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington), Vol 1: Agroecology, pp 203-230.

6.         Janusek JW & Kolata AL (2004) Top-down or bottom-up: rural settlement and raised field agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin, Bolivia. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 23(4):404-430.

7.         Bandy MS (2005) Energetic efficiency and political expediency in Titicaca Basin raised field agriculture. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24:271–296.

8.         Haiman M (2006) ADASR - Ancient Desert Agriculture Systems Revived. Accessed: 19 April 2008 http://www.mnemotrix.com/adasr/arch.html.

9.         Evenari M, Shanan L, & Tadmor N (1982) The Negev: The Challenge of a Desert (Harvard University Press, Cambridge).

10.       Lange OL & Schulze E-D (1989) In memoriam Michael Evenari (formerly Walter Schwarz) 1904–1989. Oecologia 81(4):433-436.

11.       Morris A (2004) Raised Field Technology. The Raised Fields Projects Around Lake Titicaca (Ashgate Aldershot).

12.       Swartley L (2002) Inventing Indigenous Knowledge: Archaeology, Rural Development, and the Raised Field Rehabilitation Project in Bolivia (Routledge, New York) pp xii, 210 p.

13.       Erickson C (2003) Agricultural Landscapes as World Heritage: Raised Field Agriculture in Bolivia and Peru. Managing Change: Sustainable Approaches to the Conservation of the Built Environment. The 4th Annual US/ICOMOS International Symposium 6-8 April 2001, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, eds Teutonico JM & Matero FG (Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles), pp 181-204.

14.       Erickson C (1995) Archaeological methods for the study of ancient landscapes of the Llanos de Mojos in the Bolivian Amazon. Archaeology in the Lowland American Tropics, ed Peter W. Stahl JA (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge), pp 66-95.

15.       Singh P, Pathak PS, & Roy MM (1995) Agroforestry Systems for Sustainable Land Use (Science Publishers, Lebanon, N.H.) pp viii, 283 p.

16.       Elevitch C & Wilkinson K (2000) Agroforestry Guides for Pacific Islands http://agroforestry.net/afg/index.html.

Re-Establishing Ancient Agricultural Practices: Lessons from the Recent Past (Part Two)

By Jennifer Huebert Forgotten or fading traditional agricultural practices may be able to address modern-day agricultural challenges. In this series, several recent efforts to re-establish such practices are reviewed. Each example illustrates a distinct problem, and has a unique history to consider. In the last issue, key criteria for an effective revival of forgotten agricultural technologies were outlined, and a case study from an Israeli desert was presented. This second installment highlights two additional case studies: one from the forests of Central America and another from the Andean highlands.

Case Study #2: Mayan forest gardening in Belize at El Pilar

The Mayan people have lived in the lowlands of the Belize - Guatemala border for several millennia. This region is home to a subtropical forest that stretches into southern Mexico. Mayan farmers have traditionally practiced a method of agriculture that is centred on the cultivation of forests which produce food, building materials, medicine and other plant products (1, 2). The Mayan language reflects an intimate knowledge of the natural environment, including subtle distinctions of land in various stages of cultivation (3).

El Pilar has always been remote. In ancient times, it was at the edge of the large Mayan civilization of Tikal. It was of little interest to the Spanish who controlled the area after conquest in the 16th century. In the 19th century the area became known as a resource for mahogany wood, ingredients to make dye, and chicle, which was used to make chewing gum. There is evidence that most of the plants utilized for commercial purposes were the result of relict Mayan agricultural activities (1, 4). For centuries after Western contact, the Maya migrated in small groups throughout the area, largely avoiding notice until both government harassment and paying work opportunities drew them into larger settlements in the 19th century. Their traditional agricultural practices were then discouraged to weaken indigenous claims to the land. In the mid 20th century, indigenous Mayans returned to the region after land reform laws were passed, but there is a concern that traditional Mayan culture is breaking down as traditions, such as forest gardening, are forgotten (4).

A multi-tiered version of agroforestry termed forest gardening is an important traditional Mayan agricultural practice. This type of agroforest is not often easy to discern from the surrounding forest. Crops are tended by subtle manipulations of the environment, ranging from merely encouraging plant growth to sowing seeds in ordered rows. Though no specialized equipment is needed, farmers practicing these techniques draw on an extensive knowledge of plants and the environment in their techniques (1). Hundreds of different crops are raised with these methods, including tamarind, mango, cacao and papaya, and various spices as well as dyes, wood, fodder and ornamental flowers.

Archaeological excavations of household complexes and surveys of the surrounding vegetation indicate that most of the area consists of anthropogenic forest, modified by residents over many thousands of years. Higher densities of useful crop plants are found in areas where forest gardens were thought to exist in the past (1). Archaeological surveys have uncovered patterns of ancient Mayan land use, which will be easier to interpret as knowledge of forest gardening practices grow. Over the years, extensive excavation and restoration of temple complexes near the site has taken place, and the excavation team is still studying the chronology of the area as part of the larger goal of understanding El Pilar in relation to the major ancient centres of Mayan civilization (4).

The El Pilar project that initiated this revival effort was founded by American archaeologist Anabel Ford, who has been working in this region since the early 1980s. The project was founded in 1992 and is sponsored in part by the University of California, Santa Barbara. It includes restored Mayan temples, surrounding houses, and forest gardens near thetemple and plaza remains of El Pilar. The site also includes an informational trail through an example forest garden and a cultural centre that hosts community educational workshops (2).

The project aims to support the application of indigenous knowledge to modern day concerns for conservation and development in the region (4). In order to preserve the environment, Ford has campaigned for government protection of the forests and advocates community leadership to sustain these efforts. Local college graduates have been brought on as part of the project staff. Several goals for the forest garden project were defined in collaboration with local community members; these include promoting the forest gardens as a sustainable alternative to the slash and burn agriculture practiced in much of the area today, and a means to resist outside pressure to raise single crops and invest in expensive technology to increase yields.

The community has also expressed interest in promoting these techniques as an honoured skill, rather than a simple peasant tradition. Part of the El Pilar program consists of teaching the methods to others by hosting training seminars and constructing a demonstration garden. An illustrated plant database and informational web site have been produced with data collected from present-day forest gardens. Over 400 different cultivated plants from two dozen forest gardens are recorded, along with their uses and photographs. The cultivars of each field can be searched, compared and contrasted to better understand the intricacy and diversity of this method of agriculture (5).

Case Study #3: Raised field agriculture on the Andean altiplano

Lake Titicaca sits high in the Andes Mountains of South America on the altiplano, a high-altitude plateau on the border between Bolivia and Peru. The basin surrounding this lake receives irregular rainfall, suffers unpredictable frosts and has generally poor soil for growing crops (6, 7). It has been home to indigenous populations who have farmed the land for thousands of years. These peoples endured the rise and fall of the powerful Tiwanaku state in prehistoric times and later endured conquest by the Inca and Spanish (8). The Quecha and Aymara peoples who live in this region have long subsisted on agricultural crops and livestock such as llama, alpaca and guinea pig. However, today the growing population relies heavily on imported food, as productivity is limited by poor soils and climatic extremes (6, 7).

Agriculture in this region takes place on hilly upland slopes and, to a lesser degree, on grassy, seasonally flooded plains called pampa. Potatoes and quinoa, crops first domesticated in the Titicaca Basin, are the primary cultivars (6). The farming methods used on the altiplano don’t make for easy work. A variety of hand-held hoes and a traditional foot plow, which consists of a digging stick with a paddle attached for the foot, are used to till the soil (7). In this region, there is a wet season and a dry season, each lasting for approximately half of the year. Unexpected dry spells and frosts make this a high-risk area for agriculture (6).

In recent decades, there had been attempts to introduce modern agricultural technologies in this area. Most met with failure, as the costs of implementing the practices were too high or the schemes judged too risky. One challenge has been the size of land holdings in the region (7, 9). Most families own small parcels of land, and choosing to raise cash crops instead of food crops would pose a serious food security risk. Another challenge has been presented by the government, which encourages the use of expensive modern machinery, fertilizers and pesticides. The majority of the rural population in the Andes do not have an outside income and cannot afford to own, operate or invest in such yield-improving technologies (6).

Raised agricultural field relicts have been found extensively throughout the Titicaca basin on the pampa plains (7, 9). By all current observations, such a practice has been long forgotten by the indigenous people in the region. The methods were not noted even by Spanish explorers in the 16th century (6). In the 1980s, two separate teams of American academics, led by Clark Erickson and Alan Kolata, visited the region and conducted experiments in attempts to resurrect these agricultural fields and provide a new method of subsistence to the indigenous population.

Archaeological excavations of these relict fields have uncovered a system of high, raised beds with deep canals. Pollen and soil analysis of ancient canal sediments has shown these to be rich soils cycled from canal to field bed. Erickson and his team also located and excavated farm settlements near the fields. They studied subsistence patterns and agriculture in these areas by examining plant remains from middens and fill. Remains of potatoes, quinoa, fish, camelids, bird, guinea pig and lake plants represented a diet similar to that of people in the region today. They also found many stone fragments from broken hoes (6).

Aerial photo of ancient raised agricultural beds near Lake Titicaca, Peru (Image © 2012 Google)

A rough chronology of the fields was established by dating potsherds present in the ancient field soil. A date range of 3000 before present (BP) was established as the inception of the agricultural beds, and cultivation appears to have continued for several thousand years (6, 7). The precise reasons for adoption of raised-bed agriculture are not clear, though Erickson and Kolata agree that widespread development and use of these fields was tied in some ways to population growth and the influence of the Tiwanaku state, and later the Aymara kingdoms in the region (6, 10). At its height the region supported more than 350,000 people; these numbers dwindled considerably after Spanish conquest (8).

Raised agricultural fields consist of elevated beds surrounded by water canals. Earth dug from the canals is mounded to create beds for planting crops. The canals are flooded with water, providing irrigation in times of drought and protection from unexpected frosts (6). Green manure is created from canal sediment including algae, and there is some speculation that canals may have also supported fish in ancient times (6, 9). Fields were further fertilized with animal dung, as livestock was allowed to graze on them after harvest (7). However, Erickson and Chandler (9) discouraged this practice as it was destructive to the field platforms.

Both teams determined that raised-bed agriculture could be revived as a highly productive, economical and sustainable solution appropriate to the region (6, 7, 9). They hypothesized that these methods were well suited to the altiplano environment and the technologies people were using there today. They also believed that the population, though financially poor, had a surplus of labour available to invest in these practices and that the effort required to cultivate the fields would fit well with the tradition of communal social groups in the culture.

Erickson undertook the first raised-bed experiments in this region in the early 1980s in conjunction with colleagues in Peru and with funding from the Peruvian government. This project was admittedly a small-scale experiment, involving 10 hectares in the northern area of the lake basin (6, 9). Erickson formed a team of anthropologists, archaeologists and agronomists to work with Quecaha and Aymara volunteers on the experimental test beds over the course of five years. Metrics for the bed and canal sizes were based on data from archaeological excavations of the relict fields. Traditional tools were utilized to cultivate the soil. Considerable labour was required to reconstruct fields, but after the initial investment annual maintenance and rebuilding efforts were considered manageable tasks. Crops were chosen with the help of the community. For the duration of the experiment, potato and grains such as quinoa produced yields that far exceeded those achieved by modern methods used by farmers in the region today (6).

Alan Kolata organized a larger-scale, systematic project on the south side of the lake in the area near the ruins of Tiwanaku. Scientific analyses of the soils, water and climate were conducted to study the growing conditions of the area, and 50 hectares were planted with the involvement of 22 communities. Training materials were developed including multilingual videos, texts and hands-on instruction in the fields. Leaders of the local indigenous communities were involved to convey the potential of these methods to their people, with the intention of motivating groups to participate in the project. A formal agreement with these community leaders included a supply of seed and hand tools in exchange for participation in the project. The selection of crops took place with community members, and included primarily potatoes, grains and vegetables to a smaller extent (7).

Climate and politics halted both projects intermittently, as a severe drought and later political unrest swept through the region in the mid-1980s. However, by the end of the decade Erickson considered his team’s experiments a success (6). Kolata and his team reported high but widely variable yields in the 1991-92 seasons. He claims that this is due to variable compliance with the suggested practices and the uneven distribution of natural resources such as good soils and access to reliable sources of water (7). Practical problems were encountered, such as the draining of the canals to water livestock and resistance by some groups to invest labour in mucking out canal sediments. While some communities were enthusiastic and managed labour well, others were poorly organized and missed key milestones that affected crop yields. The yields from Erickson’s experiments were larger than those achieved by Kolata. Both were widely variable across the different communities. Ultimately, these experiments yielded crops two to three times larger than those raised with traditional methods (7, 11).

Kolata concludes that his project is a success in the short term, where program compliance fostered high crop yields for some participant groups, and the potential benefits of raised-bed agriculture were clearly demonstrated. However, he also expressed serious considerations regarding the long-term sustainability of this agricultural technique in the region. Both Kolata and Erickson suggest that agricultural practices need to be considered in the larger context of society, including considerations of economics, politics, technology and the environment (7, 12). Erickson and Chandler (9) point out that experiments such as these can generate the interest of the local community and stimulate change, but that lasting change must arise from within communities.

Part three in this series will compare and contrast these case studies, and evaluate their potential to affect change in global food-production practices today.


1. Ford A (2004) Human Impacts on the Maya Forest Linking the Past with the Present for the Future of El Pilar, Report on the 2004 Field Season. (The BRASS/El Pilar Program, University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara).

2. Ford A (2008) The BRASS / El Pilar Program: Archaeology Under the Canopy. (MesoAmerican Research Center, University of California Santa Barbara).

3. Flannery KV ed (1982) Maya Subsistence (Academic Press, New York).

4. Ford A, Egerer C, Moore K, & Stanley E (2005) Culture & Nature in the Maya Forest: A Report on the 2005 Field Season - El Pilar. (Maya Forest Alliance & ISBER/MesoAmerican Research Center, University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara).

5. Anonymous (2008) The El Pilar Forest Garden Network.

6. Erickson C (1988) Raised Field Agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin. Expedition 30(3):8-16.

7. Kolata AL, Rivera O, Ramirez JC, & Gemio E (1996) Rehabilitating Raised-Field Agriculture in the Southern Lake Titicaca Basin of Bolivia. Tiwanaku and its Hinterland : Archaeology and Paleoecology of an Andean Civilization, ed Kolata AL (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington), Vol 1: Agroecology, pp 203-230.

8. Binford MW & Kolata AL (1996) The Natural and Human Setting. Tiwanaku and its Hinterland : Archaeology and Paleoecology of an Andean Civilization, ed Kolata AL (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington), Vol 1: Agroecology, pp 23-56.

9. Erickson C & Chandler K (1989) Raised Fields and Sustainable Agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin of Peru. Fragile Lands of Latin America: Strategies for Sustainable Development, ed Browder JO (Westview Press, Boulder), pp 230-248.

10. Janusek JW & Kolata AL (2004) Top-down or bottom-up: rural settlement and raised field agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin, Bolivia. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 23(4):404-430.

11. Erickson C (2003) Agricultural Landscapes as World Heritage: Raised Field Agriculture in Bolivia and Peru. Managing Change: Sustainable Approaches to the Conservation of the Built Environment. The 4th Annual US/ICOMOS International Symposium 6-8 April 2001, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, eds Teutonico JM & Matero FG (Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles), pp 181-204.

12. Erickson C (1998) Appllied Archaeology and Rural Development. Crossing Currents: Continuity and Change in Latin America, eds Whiteford MB & Whiteford S (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River), pp 34-45.

Contributor’s Biography

Jennifer Huebert is a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland, New Zealand. She is an archaeobotanist with a particular interest in the identification and analysis of archaeological wood charcoal. Her primary research topics include the study of human palaeoecology and the development of arboriculture in the archipelagos of East Polynesia.

Re-establishing Ancient Agricultural Practices: Lessons from the Recent Past (Part One)

By Jennifer Huebert Editor’s Note: This article is the first of three case studies investigating ancient agricultural practices. Look for the next installment in the Winter 2012 issue.

One of today’s most pressing global issues is the need to produce food more efficiently in order to feed the growing world population (1). This issue has been addressed with solutions ranging from genetically modified food plants to mechanized large-scale monoculture cropping practices. However, modifications people make to the landscape to cultivate food create significant and often destructive changes in the environment (2). Conscious efforts must be made to sustain agroecosystems and conserve natural resources so they can function in perpetuity.

There are important reasons to look to the ancient past for possible solutions to today’s agricultural problems. The environmental and social problems humans face today are not new. In fact, humanity may have faced the very same challenges millennia ago; people developed strategies to survive, and, at other times, the choices they made led to their ultimate demise. By looking at the past, we can see that cultures that modified ecosystems in environmentally unsustainable ways did not endure (e.g. 3, 4). We must study challenges faced in the past and attempt to learn from mistakes. In doing so, we can learn how to deal effectively with today’s problems.

Forces both cultural and natural—climate fluctuations, shifting dunes, geographic exploration, wars—acting over widely varying spans of time combine to make the world an unpredictable and constantly changing place (5). Cultures must be able to adapt because the environment and the world around us are continually changing; I argue that cultures must also adopt environmentally sustainable subsistence practices to ensure their long-term survival. In order to effectively implement change, these practices must fit within the social and economic systems of the cultures that use them (6).

In the distant past, when civilizations survived hard times there was often no record of their successes. Strategies once used to survive in difficult environments may be long forgotten; adaptive strategies may have occurred as an accumulation of subtle changes over long spans of time. When faced with looking at cultural and environmental changes over the long durée, archaeology can provide a unique perspective (7). As an interdisciplinary field, it also has the ability to bring together humanist and scientific disciplines in its pursuit. All of these attributes make archaeology especially suited to help people understand the consequences of the changes they consider effecting in the modern world (2, 4).

The study of ancient agricultural practices can thus provide valuable data to modern-day farmers, crop scientists and policy makers. Some agronomists have advocated that participatory development that uses sustainable practices is the answer. These practices encourage people to be self-sufficient in their means of food production, and ensure local control over resources and techniques used to raise crops (8, 9). An added benefit is the ability to apply a uniquely local perspective to management strategies that mitigate risks (10). This review, presented in three installments, explores case studies where forgotten or fading traditional agricultural practices were revived to address modern-day agricultural challenges. Examples were chosen to compare and contrast these initiatives in different cultures and geographic regions of the world. Each example illustrates a distinct problem to solve, and has a unique history to consider. Additionally, the teams all take different approaches to planning and implementing their projects. All face significant challenges and meet with varying degrees of success.

There are several key questions that should be addressed when considering the successful revival of forgotten agricultural technologies (4, 8-10).

•          First, is the practice appropriate for current environmental conditions? A landscape that once may have been a green pasture may now be a barren desert.

•          Second, is the practice sustainable? This answer may not be easy to discern without extensive study and experimentation.

•          Third, is there a clear benefit for the cost of implementing the practice? The practice may be very labour intensive to initiate, but if the returns are significant perhaps the investment is justified.

•          Fourth, is the technology accessible and are methods to implement it appropriate for this culture? Methods that require exotic tools and equipment may not be sustainable, and techniques that are unknown may be deemed risky or met with cultural resistance.

•          Finally, the ideology of the present society must be taken into account. The social networks that structure society and the motivations and needs of groups within must be understood, both for effective learning and to continue teaching these practices to the next generation (6).

Three case studies will ultimately be presented, along with a review of how effectively each initiative addressed the foregoing concerns. The projects will also be revisited to establish where they are today, and to assess whether these resurrected agricultural practices have benefitted modern-day societies.

Case Study #1: Runoff agriculture in the Negev Desert, Israel

Despite perceptions that the desert is a barren landscape, various forms of agriculture have been utilized to make desert areas productive. Modern irrigation systems have often been seen as the only solution to solving water problems in these areas, however these systems can be economically and technologically unattainable for many people (11). The techniques of runoff agriculture can provide an alternative. These techniques involve either channeling and storing seasonal desert floodwaters, or pumping the water through a system of chained wells to irrigate fields (12).

The remains of large-scale agriculture are seen throughout the Negev Desert of southern Israel, including thousands of hectares of stone walls and farmsteads, although the tradition and techniques have largely passed from memory. These remains were the source of scholarly speculation about the effects of severe erosion and climate change for more than a century before attracting the attention of a young Israeli botanist, Michael Evenari. Evenari considered that if the desert had once been farmed, it had the potential to be productive again (12). Evenari and an interdisciplinary team of scientists including archaeologists, agronomists, geologists and hydrologists, set out to study the remains of these ancient farms in the mid-20th century. Initially, the team’s goal was to prove theories about the effectiveness of runoff agriculture, rather than to revive ancient farming practices in this region. However, the project was later expanded to include extensive study of the desert climate, rainfall patterns and plants that could thrive under arid conditions.

After defining their project, the team set up a base at one of the ancient farmsteads and began to study the desert environment (see image 2). They first had to establish that the Negev had actually been a desert in ancient times, putting to rest speculations regarding a collapsed environment caused by erosion or climate change. Using archaeological excavation and aerial reconnaissance techniques, the team mapped stone walls, mounds, channels and dams that had been used to control seasonal flood waters in the desert (12). They discovered that water was channeled to the farms and, through varying arrangements, conveyed directly onto the fields or into cisterns where it was later distributed during the growing season. Three basic types of farms were identified. One involved simple terraces of low stone walls called wadis, which resemble a series of steps (see image 1). Wadis channeled floodwaters and prevented erosion. Another type of farm consisted of terraced fields and a farmhouse or watchtower, all surrounded by a stone fence. Hillside channels directed water to the terraces, and a series of stepped channels intricately directed the flow of floodwaters and pooled it for later use. The third type of farm was larger and far more elaborate, designed to catch runoff from very large wadis and direct it through a series of canals.

What were at first thought to be simple remains of single-occupation farm settlements were actually the layered remains of numerous, subsequent occupations. Archaeological excavations assisted the team in understanding the patterning and duration of human occupation dating back more than 10,000 years. While early residents settled near water sources, later residents settled along desert trade routes. Historical records, including ancient papyri discovered during archaeological excavations (12) indicated that this area was extensively settled to protect Nabataen trade routes across the desert, and later to support Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Desert farming was intensely practiced over these time periods. Historical documents indicate that the Negev desert was intricately divided up based on water rights enforced by law. After about AD 700, the desert region was taken over by people who did not need to protect these routes. Traffic decreased, and the farms were abandoned. The area has since been home to Bedouin, a traditionally nomadic peoples who occasionally farm small plots of land.

Two ancient farms were reconstructed in the team’s initial field season. These were highly experimental projects intended to collect data about rainfall volume and to observe water runoff patterns. Water was collected from the first seasonal flood and a test planting of trees and crops took place. Crops planted included grapes, almonds, olives, fruit trees and barley. Fodder crops, legumes, fibre plants and vegetables were added in subsequent seasons. Fields were fertilized with animal dung left in the area by Bedouin animal herds, with the addition of some modern fertilizers. Bedouin residing in the area assisted with the first planting (12).

The team’s first experimental season did well despite a severe drought that followed. Evenari and his team took on a larger-scale project of 80 plots of land, planted extensive fruit tree groves the following season, and reported successful harvests. Systematic evaluation of these desert runoff collection systems indicated that over 50 percent of rainwater could be collected with these methods (13). Over the next 15 years, the team continued to cultivate, observe rainfall patterns and study desert crop plants on the reconstructed farms. In 1970, one farm became a training centre to teach others how to use these methods to cultivate crops in arid areas (12).


Did this case study satisfy the criteria outlined for a successful revival of forgotten agricultural technologies? After much research, Evenari’s project team concluded that these practices were sustainable in a desert environment. It was remarkable that even unattended for many hundreds of years, water was still being channeled to the ancient cisterns during heavy rainfall. The team concluded, after examining historical documents and archaeological investigations, that desert farming had actually been practiced extensively here for a very long time. It only became a forgotten technology when trade routes through the desert were abandoned and / or remote borders were no longer maintained.

The team performed background research and experimented for several seasons to establish that these practices were appropriate for the current environmental conditions. They concluded that these cultivation techniques were still viable and productive in the Negev.

The immense effort and skill required to initially build walls and terraces throughout the desert in ancient times is thought to have involved labour coordinated from a state centre (14). Once these cultivation structures were in place, however, no extraordinary amount of labour was needed to farm the desert. Additionally, the cultivation techniques used in these systems did not require tools or technology that was out of reach for the Israeli food producers of the region.

Evenari’s project was conducted in large part to benefit the then newly formed state of Israel, and because of this, the initiative was well-supported on many levels. It should be noted, however, that the desert is also home to Bedouin. In his concluding remarks on the Negev project, Evenari mused that it would have been ideal to turn the desert into a productive environment for the Bedouins while preserving their cultural heritage (15). While it is not clear whether this aim was achieved, the model farm is now a worldwide teaching and research centre for the study of agronomy, plant and soil sciences in arid environments. It has affected change in arid farming practices in ten different countries (16), making it by all measures a successful re-establishment.

Part Two in this series will present a case study focusing on the revival of raised-bed agriculture in the Lake Titicaca basin of Peru.


1.         Uphoff NT (2002) Introduction. Agroecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production With Participatory Development, ed Uphoff NT (Earthscan, London), pp xv-xviii.

2.         Rogers JD (2004) The global environmental crisis: an archaeological agenda for the 21st century. The Archaeology of Global Change: The Impact of Humans on Their Environment, ed C. Redman SRJ, P.R. Fish, and J. D. Rogers (Smithsonian Books, Washington), pp 271-277.

3.         Diamond JM (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, New York).

4.         Redman CL, S.R. James, P.R. Fish, and J.D. Rogers (2004) Introduction. The Archaeology of Global Change: The Impact of Humans on Their Environment, ed C. Redman SRJ, P.R. Fish, and J. D. Rogers (Smithsonian Books, Washington), pp 1-8.

5.         Barton CM, et al. (2004) Long-term socioecology and contingent landscapes. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 11(3):253-295.

6.         Kolata AL, Rivera O, Ramirez JC, & Gemio E (1996) Rehabilitating Raised-Field Agriculture in the Southern Lake Titicaca Basin of Bolivia. Tiwanaku and its Hinterland : Archaeology and Paleoecology of an Andean Civilization, ed Kolata AL (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington), Vol 1: Agroecology, pp 203-230.

7.         Kirch PV & Sahlins MD (1992) Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii (University of Chicago Press, Chicago).

8.         Browder JO (1989) Introduction. Fragile Lands of Latin America: Strategies for Sustainable Development, ed Browder JO (Westview Press, Boulder), pp 1-10.

9.         Uphoff NT (2002) The Agricultural Development Challenges We Face. Agroecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production With Participatory Development, ed Uphoff NT (Earthscan, London), pp 3-20.

10.       Wilken GC (1989) Transferring Traditional Technology: A Bottom-Up Approach for Fragile Lands. Fragile lands of Latin America: Strategies for Sustainable Development, ed Browder JO (Westview Press, Boulder), pp 44-60.

11.       Fernandes E, Pell A, & Uphoff N (2002) Rethinking Agriculture for New Opportunities. Agroecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production With Participatory Development, ed Uphoff NT (Earthscan, London), pp 21-30.

12.       Evenari M, Shanan L, & Tadmor N (1982) The Negev: The Challenge of a Desert (Harvard University Press, Cambridge).

13.       Evenari M (1974) Desert Farmers: Ancient and Modern. Natural History 83(7):42-49.

14.       Haiman M (2006) ADASR - Ancient Desert Agriculture Systems Revived.

15.       Evenari M, Shanan L, Tadmor N, & Aharoni Y (1961) Ancient Agriculture in the Negev. Science 133(3457):979-996.

16.       Lange OL & Schulze E-D (1989) In memoriam Michael Evenari (formerly Walter Schwarz) 1904–1989. Oecologia 81(4):433-436.

Contributor’s Biography

Jennifer Huebert is a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland, New Zealand. She is an archaeobotanist with a particular interest in the identification and analysis of archaeological wood charcoal. Her primary research topics include the study of human palaeoecology and the development of arboriculture in the archipelagos of East Polynesia.

Georg Gerster (Image 1) www.georggerster.com

Panacea or Platitude: Integrated Water Resource Management - Conceptually Sound But Fundamentally Flawed

By Rhett Larson Water is unique in that it is often viewed simultaneously as a fundamental human right and yet an increasingly valuable natural resource largely integrated with private real property rights. Because of this dichotomy, water policy lends itself to similar dichotomous discussions, with aspirational platitudes met with pragmatic skepticism. In recent years, this dichotomy has crystallized around the concept of "integrated water resource management" ("IWRM"). IWRM is commonly defined as, "A process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems" (1). This essay describes the objectives of IWRM, examines its limitations in the context of one hotly contested river basin—the Colorado River Basin—and offers pragmatic suggestions on how to realize the aspirations of IWRM.

I. The Colorado River Basin—Why IWRM is Conceptually Sound

The Colorado River represents a classic example of a failure to incorporate IWRM principles in resource management. The river basin is shared by two countries, several states and many indigenous communities in an arid region that has a growing population, agricultural and mineral resources, and threatened ecosystems (2). The law of the Colorado River (commonly called "The Law of the River") is composed of legislation, court decisions and agreements, including the Colorado River Compact and the Mexican Water Treaty in particular, which set forth the rights of the river’s stakeholders and the relationships between riparian jurisdictions, including upper basin jurisdictions (like Colorado and Utah) and lower basin jurisdictions (like Arizona, California, and Mexico) (3,4,5). The compact was negotiated in 1922 and the treaty in 1944, each with limited input from many stakeholder groups, inadequate and inaccurate hydrologic and climatologic data, poor foresight on population growth and climate change, and virtually no consideration of ecological issues (6).

Upper basin jurisdictions often make development and management decisions independent of lower basin users who bear the heaviest burden of mismanagement by upstream riparian states. For example, dams in Nevada and Arizona, the operation of a desalinization plant along the Arizona/Mexico border and diversionary irrigation projects in northern Mexico and southern Arizona threaten the ecological balance of the Colorado River Delta, including the ancestral homeland of the Cocopah people and the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher. Each jurisdiction rationally seeks to satisfy its constituents without regard for externalities (7).

Had The Law of the River included a more flexible approach, allowing diversion rights to respond to changing flow conditions, and had development of The Law of the River integrated public participation (in particular from indigenous communities) and different disciplines (including ecology and climatology), much of the current crises related to the Colorado River might have been mitigated. But the development of The Law of the River is not just an example of failure to incorporate IWRM in treaty negotiation and development, it is a cautionary tale of the pitfalls for implementation of IWRM.

II. The Colorado River Basin—Why IWRM is Fundamentally Flawed

IWRM is fundamentally flawed in several ways demonstrated by challenges in the Colorado River Basin. Primarily, the concept of collaborative governance inherent in IWRM seldom works in practice (8). Stakeholder interests and cultures in most contested river basins are simply too diverse and their differences too divisive. For example, it is difficult to harmonize the disparate interests of casino developers on the Las Vegas strip with fishermen in the Colorado River delta (9). The challenge is all the more acute given the unanimity principle inherent in the concept of collaborative governance—e.g. IWRM (8). Unanimity amongst so diverse, and so competitive, a group of stakeholders hedges in IWRM efforts dependent upon collaboration.

Indeed, diversity is a central challenge to implementation of IWRM, and not just economic, cultural and political diversity. The geological, ecological, and hydrological conditions of large contested rivers are typically too diverse to lend themselves to centralized IWRM. The Colorado River Basin encompasses highly varied geological and ecological conditions, from perennial mountain streams in the Rockies to ephemeral arroyos in the Sonoran Desert (6,7). The technical challenge of developing nuanced standards over so diverse a watershed poses an obstacle to successful IWRM implementation.

Furthermore, existing legal institutions may be inconsistent with IWRM objectives. For example, Arizona maintains a bifurcated water rights system in which groundwater and surface water are treated as distinct, disconnected resources (10). This bifurcation is a legal fiction, as surface water and groundwater resources frequently interact as part of the hydrologic cycle and rarely lend themselves to bright-line distinctions. This legal fiction has resulted in significant litigation amongst Arizona users, and would serve only to further muddy the legal miasma of integrating multiple jurisdictions’ water law (11). In order to take an integrated approach to water management, IWRM proponents would have to integrate regulation of surface and groundwater in Arizona, thereby overcoming the rigid expectations of Arizona groundwater rights holders based on more than a century of law treating groundwater and surface water as distinct resources.

Entrenched expectations and rigid legal rights can frustrate IWRM success. The U.S. federal government holds in trust reserved water rights for all tribes within the basin (12). These reserved water rights represent a critical assumption underlying the treaties establishing tribal reservations upon which indigenous peoples rely both economically and culturally. Impinging upon these federally reserved rights to more effectively allocate water resources across the entire watershed would be viewed by many tribes as an assault on their sovereignty, a blatant violation of long-established treaty rights, an unconstitutional exercise of eminent domain on tribal property and a dereliction of a fiduciary duty held in trust by the federal government for the benefit of the tribe. IWRM comes to the scene too late at a point when resources have become so scarce and reliance on contractual and historical practices so entrenched as to practically preclude the effort to integrate other management approaches.

III. How To Advance IWRM While Mitigating Its Flaws

While IWRM principles address the most fundament challenges of water basin management, the practical implementation of IWRM would prove too unwieldy a tool in the face of the types of obstacles illustrated in the Colorado River Basin. The following four prescriptions would mitigate the weaknesses of IWRM while still upholding its values.

First, IWRM should provide overarching guidance to promote consistency in a series of management plans, "Starting at the sub-basin level and be progressively integrated into a multinational planning and management regime for the entire river basin" (13). This ensures that the institutions and regulatory framework developed by IWRM are sufficiently nuanced to the peculiar hydrogeological, ecological, cultural and economic issues in each sub-basin.

Second, IWRM must incorporate adaptive management principles. Adaptive management is, "A decision process that promotes flexible decision making that can be adjusted in the face of uncertainties as outcomes from management actions and other events become better understood…It is not a ‘trial by error’ process, but rather emphasizes learning while doing" (14). Adaptive management principles prevent decisions made in the IWRM process from becoming stale and static in contrast to the dynamic variables of watershed management.

Third, the shared benefits model used in the 1961 Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada allows downstream users to share in the benefits of upstream allocations, including dams for reservoirs or hydroelectric power. In that treaty, Canada agreed to forego certain development and diversion opportunities within the watershed, and offered flood control measures to the United States, in exchange for payment from the United States of revenues derived from electricity sales and water storage for Canadian users. The concept of "shared benefits" is derived from welfare economics, which posits that water is simply a valuable, scarce commodity with multiple possible alternative uses (15, 16).

Fourth, transferable private water rights (including tribal reserved water rights) must be viewed as consistent with IWRM objectives. "Private rights in water are fully transparent in every state water rights system. They are inclusive in the sense that potential water users may acquire water rights, although both the riparian and appropriation systems do place limits on type and place of use. Private rights in water provide accountability except to the extent that costs and benefits cannot be fully internalized. Finally, market exchanges of private water rights assure efficient allocation of the water resources, again assuming costs and benefits are internalized" (8).

IV. Conclusion

The objectives of IWRM are directed at problems that have always plagued watershed management, including lack of transparency, inclusivity and coordination. However, its implementation is hampered by the technical difficulties in regulating varied ecological and climatic conditions over large areas, collaboration between diverse stakeholders with competing and entrenched interests, and distinct jurisdictions sharing the watershed, each with legal institutions which may be inconsistent with one another and with the objectives of IWRM. The flaws can be mitigated through sub-basin planning, adaptive management, shared benefits and application of market forces on transferable water rights.


(1) Global Water Partnership (2000) Integrated Water Resources Management. in TAC Background Papers No. 4 (GWP Secretariat, Stockholm).

(2) Adler RW (2002) Restoring Colorado River Ecosystems:  A Troubled Sense of Immensity (Island Press, Washington, D.C.).

(3) Wilber RL & Ely N (1948) The Hoover Dam Documents (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.)

(4) Nathanson MN (1980) Updating the Hoover Dam documents, 1978 (U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation).

(5) Treaty Between the United States of America and Mexico Respecting Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande (1944) 59 Stat. 1219, 1237.

(6) Pulwarty RS, Jacobs KL, & Dole RM (2005) The Hardest Working River: Drought and Critical Water Problems in the Colorado River Basin. Drought and Water Crises, ed Wilhite DA (CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida), pp 249-280.

(7) Glennon RJ & Culp PW (2002) The Last Green Lagoon: How and Why the Bush Administration Should Save the Colorado River Delta. Ecology Law Quarterly 28(4):902-992.

(8) James L. Huffman, "Comprehensive River Basin Management: The Limits of Collaborative, Stakeholder-Based, Water Governance," 49 Nat. Resources J. 117, 144 (2009).

(9) Fradkin PL (1996) A River No More:  The Colorado River and the West (University of California Press, Berkeley).

(10)  Evans A (2010) The Groundwater/Surface Water Dilemma in Arizona: A Look Back and a Look Ahead Toward Conjunctive Management Reform. Phoenix Law Review 3:269-291.

(11) In re General Adjudication of All Rights to Use Water in the Gila River System and Source (989 P.2d 739, 749 (Ariz. 1999).

(12) Winters v. United States (1908) 297 U.S. 564.

(13) Tarlock AD (Changing Currents: Perspectives on the State of Water Law and Policy in the 21st Century. Tulane Environmental Law Journal 23(2):369.

(14) U.S. Dept. of the Interior (2009) Adaptive Management Technical Guide 4, available at http://www.doi.gov.initiatives/Adaptive Management/TechGuide.pdf.

(15) Tarlock AD & Wouters P (2002) Are Shared Benefits of International Waters an Equitable Apportionment? Colorado Journal of International Environmental Law and Policy 18(3).

(16) Sadoff CW & Grey D (2002) Beyond the river: the benefits of cooperation on international rivers. Water Policy 4(5):389-403.

Contributor’s Biography

Rhett Larson's research and teaching interests are in administrative law and environmental and natural resource law, in particular, domestic and international water law and policy. Larson graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, where he was a Mohlman and S.K. Yee Scholar, and received his Master of Science in Water Science, Policy, and Management from Oxford University, where he was a Weidenfeld Scholar. Larson is a visiting assistant professor of law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.

Creating a Sustainable Desert Metropolis

Artists have long appreciated the desert for its otherworldly landscape. Painter Georgia O'Keefe devoted much of her late career to capturing the distinct elements of the American Southwest, and architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright felt a strong connection to the desert – a place, he said, which inspired its own singular style of architecture. Environmental artist Joan Baron is no different in her appreciation of the desert's unique attributes and the creative opportunities they present. Such opportunities are the subject of Baron's ongoing urban landscape installation, The Edible Landscape Project – a unique rental property for those who crave the hands-on approach to their food source.

The Homeowner

In 1980, Baron bought and renovated a house on the same street as her property with the goal of creating a functional desert living space far different than your typical track house. The rental home offers her tenants a completely edible landscape and the opportunity to collaborate with her art and environmental sensibilities in a garden setting.

Baron bounces ideas off her tenants to try to answer the question that drives her art: what is it that sustains us?

"Respecting the land and what it can provide for us, living in purpose, growing one’s food and spending time outdoors with nature all contribute to best practices for sustained happiness and well-being," Baron says. "This is the making of a sustainable desert metropolis."

The Tenants

Midwest transplants, Melissa and Ben Beresford left their native Chicago to begin their respective graduate programs in Tempe. Disappointed by the sterile apartment landscape of the Phoenix metro area, they took a chance on a less traditional rental agreement when they found Baron’s project.

"We liked the emphasis on sustainability, and we both come from a family of gardeners, so it was perfect," says Melissa, who added that she and Ben had limited knowledge of how to garden in a climate with six growing seasons. Shortly after moving in, they started reaping the benefits.

Both successful harvests and failed attempts have taught them a great deal.

The Lessons

Baron and her tenants have learned the importance of strategically planning and planting for the best sun orientation. Fruit trees can handle more sun exposure, so south-side planting tends to work best. Plants that need a bit more shade can still be planted on the south side as long as some shading is provided.

They have learned that raised plant beds allow for companion planting—spatial relationships that are mutually beneficial—such as tomatoes with pole beans and kale, broccoli and cauliflower with garlic and dill.

"Mint and chives help to repel bugs and aphids, while spinach provides a living mulch for garlic," Baron says. "Marigold and oregano provide overall protection."

Raised beds also offer an element of flexibility. They can be custom designed to fit a space, and in the summer months if the raised beds need more shading, shade screen tents can be added. The beds also make it practical to use locally produced mulch and soil as well as fish oil and other nutrients.

"The beds allow me to provide my own soil mix rather than rely on the hard-dirt soil found on most properties," Baron says.

Finally, they have learned to focus their gardening energy on lesser known foods rather than the ubiquitous types of produce they can get cheaply from their local grocer.

"I encourage people to try different varieties of greens, such as microgreens or different varieties of basils or mints," Baron says. "When you go into a grocery store you will find one basic choice for your basil."

The Edible Landscape currently produces three varieties of plums, Anna apples, Desert Gold peaches, figs, pomegranates, Valencia oranges, Meyer lemons, Mexican limes, kumquats, blood oranges, Swiss chard, kale, arugula, society garlic, six varieties of peppers, artichokes, Armenian cucumbers, rosemary, oregano, sage, fennel, dill, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, okra, lavender, thyme, mint and lettuces.

"Joan taught us about some of the native medicinal plants of the desert," Ben says. "We have creosote growing along with senna, agaves, aloe, globe mallow calendula and Navajo tea." Cresote, a prevalent desert shrub, helps cure sore throats and congestion, while senna, in small quantities, can help treat digestive problems.

Re-imagining Desert Space

Growing food makes up only half of the equation, Baron says. The other half is how to use space and materials efficiently—a key idea to developing a sustainable desert metropolis.

"The Edible Landscape Project is a look at a different kind of system," Baron says.

For example, Baron collects the desert's most precious resource with a rain gutter that guides rainwater into a 400-gallon cistern she created from a section of metal culvert. She also stripped the driveway of concrete to reduce heat island and improve water absorption. She created more opportunities for natural cooling by planting five mesquite trees that are now fully grown and provide up to 40 feet of shade in the front garden. Using limbs of the native ocotillo, Baron constructed a living fence to help create a communal space for the tenants in the front garden as opposed to the back. Baron sees the frequent non-use of homes’ front space as a lost opportunity.

"We live in a backyard culture, and often the front spaces are dismissed and not considered as viable active areas," Baron says. "The ocotillo provides a lovely sculptural element to the landscape of the front space. It’s private yet welcoming."

Baron also planted a row of hollyhocks and sunflowers in the back alleyway of her studio. The gardening tactic has community implications as well: to make a shared space, solely reserved for the discarding of trash, more welcoming to the community that shares it.

If the focus of the Edible Landscape Project is how to live more sustainably in the desert, then its underlying theme is community stewardship. Baron and her tenants break the mold of the traditional owner-renter relationship, in that they must work together to care for the property and make the project grow—literally. The sense of community the project cultivates is what ultimately leads to further success.

When it comes to creating a sustainable desert metropolis, Baron reminds us that we’re all stewards, and we can all share in the bounties of nature.

Contributor's Biography:

Britt Lewis is a graduate student in the Department of English at Arizona State University, where she is studying ecocriticism.

Drugs in Water: A San Francisco Bay Case Study

by Morgan Levy, UC Berkeley, Energy & Resources Group This is one part of a joint Art & Research entry. See the corresponding art piece here.


Hormones, antidepressants, antibiotics, and chemicals from personal care products have been founds in waterways nationwide (1). Most wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to filter pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) from treated wastewater and existing treatment processes do so with varying levels of success (2). Thus contaminants not removed during treatment can enter water systems such as freshwater streams and rivers, canals, lakes and reservoirs, groundwater aquifers, estuaries, and oceans (2, 3). Active pharmaceutical compounds are robust and persist in the environment. Pharmaceuticals are specifically made to withstand digestion processes in human (and animal) bodies, and some drug compounds will leave sewage plants at concentrations that are just as strong as when the water entered the sewer system (4, 5). Two studies from the South San Francisco Bay ("South Bay") in northern California demonstrate a geographically specific, yet nationally representative example of how PPCP contaminants enter and persist in our linked natural and human environment.

Where Pharmaceuticals in Water Come From:
  • People: The U.S. represents the largest single national market for pharmaceuticals. Forty-four percent of all Americans take at least one prescription drug, and almost a fifth take three or more (6). Human urinary excretion of intact pharmaceutical compounds can range from the three percent of original intake for a drug like the antiepileptic carbamazepine, to the 90 percent excretion for the beta-blocker atenolol (7). Additionally, medical facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes and dental offices, and institutional facilities like schools, public housing, and correctional facilities release concentrated sources of PPCP compounds into water systems (2).
  • Agriculture: Animals, and especially factory farming operations, introduce PPCPs into water systems. In agriculture, antibiotics are used to treat infections and to promote growth as feed additives (2). Forty percent of U.S.-produced antibiotics are fed to livestock as growth enhancers; livestock manure and un-absorbed antibiotic compounds (often concentrated in massive waste lagoons) eventually wash into surface water or percolate into groundwater (8, 9, 10, 11).
  • Industry: Pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities contaminate water by dumping excess drug compounds. Water from two New York streams that receive discharge from drug manufacturing facilities were found to have concentrations of pharmaceuticals 10 to 1000 times higher than non-receiving water (12).

While many different classes of pharmaceuticals are detectable in water, they are often found at concentrations so low that quantifying their concentrations accurately in samples can be difficult (8, 13). However, the impacts of what even trace amounts of pharmaceuticals can have on both aquatic ecosystems and humans are only beginning to be explored and are little understood (2). Pharmaceuticals have nevertheless been labeled "legacy pollutants of tomorrow" due to their persistence in environments and their ability to build up within the tissues of organisms (14). PPCPs can, like mercury (a more well-understood persistent contaminant), bio-accumulate and move up food chains (4).

  • Environmental Concerns: Pharmaceutical contaminants can cause ecological impacts. USGS scientists found that antidepressants discharged to streams by wastewater treatment plants are taken up into the bodies of fish living downstream of sewage plants (15, 16). Researchers in the UK found that shrimp exposed to the antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac) radically alter their behavior, endangering their own survival (17). Exposure to pharmaceutical compounds containing hormones has been linked to sex mutations. For instance, in one study, female fish developed male genital organs, sex ratios were skewed in some aquatic populations, and bass produced cells for both sperm and eggs (3). Other documented effects of pharmaceutical exposure include kidney failure in vultures, impaired reproduction in mussels, and inhibited growth in algae (3).
  • Human Health Concerns: In 2008, an Associated Press investigation revealed that pharmaceuticals had been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas serving 46 million Americans; all supplies received water from rivers and reservoirs that contained previously treated wastewater (18, 19). These drinking water supplies contained antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones (20). Scientists and health professionals don’t fully understand the risks from persistent low-level exposure to pharmaceuticals through our drinking water (and potentially our food supply). Experimental research has found that exposure to small amounts of medication affect human embryonic kidney cells, causing them to grow slowly; that human blood cells show biological activity associated with inflammation; and that trace medications can cause human breast cancer cells to proliferate more quickly (21). In studies of soil fertilized with sludge product from wastewater treatment plants, researchers found that earthworms and vegetables had absorbed pharmaceutical compounds, thus posing a potential threat to food chains (3). Studies to date suggest that most found concentrations of pharmaceutical compounds in water systems today (not in lab environments where higher concentrations can be tested) have little known impact to most aquatic species or to humans (22, 23). Nevertheless, preliminary findings such as those above concern some scientists and water treatment experts (13, 23).

Case Study of the South San Francisco Bay

California’s San Francisco Bay and Delta, located at the terminus of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, is the largest estuary on the west coast and drains almost half the land area of California. PPCPs have been found throughout the Bay’s sediments, plankton, invertebrates, fish, birds, and even marine mammals like seals (24). Both San Jose (25) and Santa Clara (26) are large urban cities that get most of their drinking water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the east of the San Francisco Bay -- water that comes primarily from the Sacramento River (26). The Sacramento River originates over 400 miles to the northeast of the Bay in California’s Sierra Nevada Foothills and winds through many small towns and cities (and their treatment facilities) on its journey to the coast (27). Once in the Silicon Valley (South Bay), the water is mixed with local supplies, treated once more, and piped to residents as drinking water (27). While both San Jose and Santa Clara reported that they had not tested for pharmaceuticals in their drinking water (18), PPCPs were found in the larger watersheds of both cities (28).

Google Earth image of San Francisco Bay

South San Francisco Bay’s largest wastewater treatment plant, the San Jose/Santa Clara Water Pollution Control Plant (WPCP), rests on 2,600 acres on the southernmost banks of the San Francisco Bay (29). Of the three wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the lower South Bay, the San Jose/Santa Clara plant serves the largest population and discharges the most wastewater (30). Wastewater travels to the plant from a 300-square mile area and from eight cities in the Santa Clara Valley. The plant treats the sewage water of 1.4 million people and 16,000 businesses (31). Sixty-two percent of the sewage comes from residential sources, 7 percent is industrial, and 31 percent is from commercial businesses (30). Through 2,200 miles of sewer pipes, the plant receives on average 100 million gallons of raw sewage per day (most wastewater treatment plants receive around 10 million) (31, 32).

Drugs From The Plant:

In July, 2010, the San Jose/Santa Clara WPCP published results from a study that tested wastewater for 166 different compounds, including PPCPs, steroids, hormones, pesticides, flame retardants, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (13, 32). Plant and city government staff collected samples of wastewater influent, effluent, and waste solids, and analyzed the samples using U.S. EPA analytical methods to achieve trace-level quantification of contaminant compounds (32). For compounds with a sufficient number of quantified concentrations at more than one sampling point, staff calculated a removal efficiency and mass balance estimate (32). Few studies compare pharmaceutical contamination from an individual plant’s influent (untreated raw sewage) to contamination found in the plant’s effluent (treated wastewater), and this research is unique even internationally according to its authors (13).

Google Earth Image of South San Francisco Bay and Research Sites

Results from the study show that some compounds are reduced significantly by the plant’s current treatment processes (such as 99 percent of ibuprofen), while others are unaffected or even increased (such as fluoxitine – commonly known as Prozac) (32). Many compounds were significantly reduced in the treatment process (between 88 percent to 100 percent reduction in final effluent) (32). Ninety-five of the total 166 contaminants tested were detected in at least some effluent samples; 53 of the detectable 95 were measured at quantifiable levels, and the rest were detected but not quantified (concentrations were too small to be accurately measured) (32). Ten of the quantifiable compounds showed less than 75 percent removal, and for three, the treatment process appeared to have no impact whatsoever (32). Pharmaceutical contaminants that showed what plant operators and study authors qualified as "poor to no reduction" through current treatment processes included those listed below in Table 1.


Drug Type

Influent (ng/L)



% Reduced


Bronchodilator (lung diseases and asthma medication)















Anticonvulsant and mood stabilizer



















Table 1: Table adapted from Dunlavey et. al., 2010, Table 3: "Removal Efficiency and Mass Balance Estimate for Conservative Constituents." Ng/L = nano-gram per liter; a nanogram is one billionth (1/1,000,000,000) of a gram.

Drugs In The Bay:

The South Bay is relatively stagnant; during dry months, the lower South Bay can receive nearly all of its freshwater inflow from the three wastewater treatment plants located along its shores (30). In 2006, the San Francisco Estuary Institute’s "Regional Monitoring Program" sampled and tested for PPCPs in the lower San Francisco Bay (30). This study tested influent and effluent samples from the San Jose/Santa Clara WPCP and another smaller local plant (serving Palo Alto) as well as ambient surface water at multiple points in the lower South Bay at low tide (30) This study also followed the same U.S. EPA methods employed in the San Jose/Santa Clara plant study (30). PPCP concentrations in Bay waters decreased with increased distance into the Bay (and away from the plant); salinity measurements collected along with Bay samples indicated this was the result of dilution through mixing with saline Bay waters (29). The San Francisco Estuary Institute study (published in 2009) evaluated 39 compounds from fourteen different classes of use. Researchers found (similar to the San Jose/Santa Clara Plant’s study) that while some PPCP compounds were not detected or not able to be quantified, several were present in measurable quantities, including those listed in Table 2 below (30).


Drug Type





Bay (ng/L)

EcoToxicity Thresholds



Pain relief medication
















No information provided


Opiate, pain relief medication




No information provided


Psychoactive stimulant




No information provided


Blood pressure medication


















Cholesterol regulation medication
















No information provided

Table 2: Table adapted from Harrold et al. 2009, Table 8: "Average concentrations of PPCPs in influent, effluent, and Bay water samples from Lower South San Francisco Bay…" Ng/L = nano-gram per liter; a nanogram is one billionth (1/1,000,000,000) of a gram.

Test results from a testing station at the outlet of the Artesian Slough (the waterway that channels wastewater directly from the treatment plant to the Bay) show concentrations of pharmaceuticals that were typically higher than those found further out into the Bay. Thus due to location, the presence of these compounds at the outlet of the Artesian Slough can be primarily attributed to effluent coming from the San Jose/Santa Clara plant.

Ecological Impacts

Overall, the San Francisco Estuary Institute study found that pharmaceutical concentrations generally decrease with distance from the treatment plant and that concentrations were generally at levels below accepted toxicity values; however toxicity thresholds for many of the measured compounds are not established (30).  The antibiotic sulfamethoxazole appeared in concentrations two to forty times higher than one known threshold of concern; concentrations of between 44.8 to 1,060 ng/L were observed relative to a 27 ng/L toxicity threshold derived from acute toxicity tests on blue-green algae, an often-used indicator species for toxicity impacts (30). At the same time, sulfamethoxazole concentration levels came in well under the threshold established by another test wherein 30,000 ng/L was found to impact the growth of duckweed (another aquatic plant used regularly used in toxicity studies) (33).

Many PPCPs present in the Bay have been tested for ecological impacts at much higher concentrations than those actually found in the Bay. Through these tests, some compounds were found to have harmful effects. For example, gemfibrozil reduced testosterone in fish, and erythromycin-H2O inhibited the population growth of green algae (30). In other cases, little effect was demonstrated. For instance, extended multi-generational exposure of a freshwater amphipod (a tiny shrimp-like crustacean) to acetaminophen, gemfibrozil, and ibuprofen did not impact survival, mating, body size, or reproduction—common evaluation factors in toxicity studies that demonstrate environmental impact (30).


Available evidence suggests that for most found concentrations of pharmaceutical compounds in water systems today (not in lab environments where higher concentrations can be tested), there is little to no threat to most aquatic species or humans (22, 23). Nevertheless, the increasing number of U.S. government agency efforts to address this topic (see USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program "emerging contaminants" project [34], and U.S. EPA’s "PPCP Research Areas" [35]) suggest that scientists are concerned. Undeniably, the increasing manufacture and use of PPCPs has resulted in the introduction of diverse and novel contaminants into water systems in the U.S., and worldwide (36). The prevalence of drugs in waterways begs the question: Are we permanently altering the composition and health of local, regional, and even global water systems? We’ve already seen industrial-era contaminants like mercury do precisely this.


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[2]. Wu M, Atchley D, Greer L, Janssen S, Rosenberg D, & Sass J (2009) Dosed Without Prescription: Preventing Pharmaceutical Contamination of Our Nation's Drinking Water (Natural Resources Defense Council). http://docs.nrdc.org/health/files/hea_10012001a.pdf.

[3]. The Associated Press (2008) Day 2: PharmaWater II: Fish, wildlife affected by drug contamination in water. An AP Investigation: Pharmaceuticals Found in Drinking Water, http://hosted.ap.org/specials/interactives/pharmawater_site/day2_01.html.

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[5]. Hall N (2010) Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and NRDC file petition to close loophole on pharmaceutical drugs in drinking water. Great Lakes Law Blog, http://www.greatlakeslaw.org/blog/2010/07/great-lakes-environmental-law-center-and-nrdc-file-petition-to-close-loophole-on-pharmaceutical-drug.html.

[6]. Daughton C, Pharmaceuticals in the Environment: Sources and Their Management (2007) in Analysis, Fate and Removal of Pharmaceuticals in the Water Cycle, eds Petrovic M & Barcelo D (Elsevier, Amsterdam) pp 1-58.

[7]. Bound J & Voulvoulis N (2004) Pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment – a comparison of risk assessment strategies. Chemosphere 56: 1143-1155.

[8]. Kostich M and Lazorchak J (2008) Risks to aquatic organisms posed by human pharmaceutical use. Science of the Total Environment 389: 329-339.

[9]. University of Arizona (2000) Pharmaceuticals In Our Water Supplies: Are "Drugged Waters" a Water Quality Threat? Arizona Water Resource, http://ag.arizona.edu/azwater/awr/july00/feature1.htm

[10]. Chee-Sanford J, et al. (2001) Occurrence and Diversity of Tetracycline Resistance Genes in Lagoons and Groundwater Underlying Two Swine Production Facilities. Applied and Environmental Microbiology 6: 1494-1502.

[11]. Sapkota A, Curriero F, Gibson K, Schwab K (2007) Antibiotic-Resistant Enterococci and Fecal Indicators in Surface Water and Groundwater Impacted by a Concentrated Swine Feeding Operation. Environ Health Perspect. 115: 1040-5.

[12]. Phillips P, Buxton H, Noserale D (2010) Pharmaceutical Formulation Facilities as Sources of Opioids and Other Pharmaceuticals to Wastewater Treatment Plant Effluents. Environmental Science & Technology 44: 4910-4916.

[13]. Ervin J, (2010) City of San Jose Environmental Services Department, Telephone interview, August 5, 2010.

[14]. Oros D, Jarman W, Lowe T, David N, Lowe S, Davis J (2003) Surveillance for previously unmonitored organic contaminants in the San Francisco Estuary. Marine Pollution Bulletin 46: 1102-1110.

[15]. Schultz M, Furlong E, Kolpin D, Werner S, Schoenfuss H, et al. (2010) Antidepressant Pharmaceuticals in Two U.S. Effluent-Impacted Streams: Occurrence and Fate in Water and Sediment, and Selective Uptake in Fish Neural Tissue. Environmental Science & Technology 44:1918-1925;

[16]. USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program (2010) Antidepressants in Stream Waters! Are They in the Fish Too? USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program, http://toxics.usgs.gov/highlights/antidepressants_fish.html.

[17]. Guler Y & Ford A, (2010) Anti-depressants make amphipods see the light. Aquatic Toxicology 99: 397-404.

[18]. The Associated Press (2008) Day 1: PharmaWater-Metros-A To Z; Pharmaceuticals found in drinking water of 24 major metro areas, 34 say no testing. An AP Investigation: Pharmaceuticals Found in Drinking Water, http://hosted.ap.org/specials/interactives/pharmawater_site/day1_04.html.

[19]. Scott J (2008) Trace pharmaceuticals may be harmless to Bay, experts suggest Oakland Tribune, Apr. 11, 2008, http://legacy.sfei.org/inthenews/Oakland_Trib041108.pdf.

[20]. The Associated Press (2008) PharmaWater I: Pharmaceuticals found in drinking water, affecting wildlife and maybe humans. An AP Investigation: Pharmaceuticals Found in Drinking Water, http://hosted.ap.org/specials/interactives/pharmawater_site/day1_01.html.

[21]. The Associated Press (2008) PharmaWater-Research: Research shows pharmaceuticals in water could impact human cells. An AP Investigation: Pharmaceuticals Found in Drinking Water, http://hosted.ap.org/specials/interactives/pharmawater_site/day1_03.html.

[22]. Office of Research and Development (2009) Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs), U.S. EPA, http://www.epa.gov/ppcp/.

[23]. Klosterhaus S (2010) San Francisco Estuary Institute. Telephone interview, August 16, 2010.

[24]. Thompson B, Adelsbach T, Brown C, Hunt J, Kuwabara J, et al. (2007) Biological effects of anthropogenic contaminants in the San Francisco Estuary, Environmental Research 105: 156-174.

[25]. City of San Jose, Environmental Services Department, (2009) San Jose Municipal Water System: Water Supply. City of San Jose Web, http://www.sjmuniwater.com/supply.asp

[26]. Santa Clara Valley Water District (2010) Where Does Your Water Come From. Santa Clara Valley Water District Web, http://www.valleywater.org/Services/WhereDoesYourWaterComeFrom.aspx

[27]. Santa Clara Valley Water District (2010) The Water Treatment Process. Santa Clara Valley Water District Web, http://www.valleywater.org/services/TheWaterTreatmentProcess.aspx

[28]. The Associated Press (2008) Day 1: PharmaWater-Watersheds; AP investigation details pharmaceuticals found in watersheds of 28 major metro areas. An AP Investigation: Pharmaceuticals Found in Drinking Water, http://hosted.ap.org/specials/interactives/pharmawater_site/day1_07.html.

[29]. San Jose/Santa Clara Water Pollution Control Plant (2010) Existing Situation: ThePlant and It’s Lands (Video). SJ/SC WPCP Plant Master Plan Web, http://www.rebuildtheplant.org/go/doc/1823/432663/

[30]. Harrold KH, Yee D, Sedlak M, Klosterhaus S, Davis JA, et al. (2009) Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in Wastewater Treatment Plant Influent and Effluent and Surface Waters of Lower South San Francisco Bay (Regional Monitoring Program for Water Quality in the San Francisco Estuary). San Francisco Estuary Institute, Report #549, http://www.sfei.org/node/2918

[31]. City of San Jose, Environmental Services Department (2010) San Jose/Santa Clara Water Pollution Control Plant. City of San Jose Web, http://www.sanjoseca.gov/esd/wastewater/water-pollution-control-plant.asp

[32]. Dunlavey E, Ervin J, and Tucker D (2010) Environmental Fate and Transport of Microconstituents. Water Environment and Technology 22: 2-5

[33]. Brain R, Johnson D, Richards S, Sanderson H, Sibley P, & Solomon K (2004) Effects of 25 pharmaceutical compounds to Lemna gibba using a seven-day static-renewal test. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 23: 371–382.

[34]. USGS (2010) Research Projects - Emerging Contaminants in the Environment. USGS Web, http://toxics.usgs.gov/regional/emc/.

[35]. U.S. EPA (2010) EPA PPCP Research | Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products (PPCPs). U.S. EPA Web, http://www.epa.gov/ppcp/work2.html.

[36]. Weil H & Knepper T (2006) Pharmaceuticals in the River Rhine, in The Rhine: The Handbook of Environmental Chemistry (Springer, Heidelberg) Vol. 5, Part L: pp 177–184.

About the author: Morgan Levy is a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Energy & Resources Group, researching interdisciplinary water resources issues particular to California and the American West. She recently returned from a Fulbright Fellowship in Environmental Studies – Water Management in The Netherlands, where she interviewed farmers about agricultural water use.

Memory of Water: The Salt River Project

The Salt River Project follows the Salt River from the recreation areas East of Phoenix out to the Gillespie Dam West of Phoenix. It is the story of an urban desert river. The project begins with the conceptual framework provided by high water marks. Clumps of dirt, plastic bags and plant growth five feet up in trees serve as a reminder that the dry riverbed is not dead, but only dormant. Too often in the desert, water concerns orbit around the idea that we're using up all our resources and that the dryness is a sign of the dismal future. Though transient communities have made the river channel home, and others use it as a dumping ground, sooner or later the water will rise again. Everything found in the channel is colored with this knowledge.

In exploring the Salt River bed and banks, the garbage becomes remnants and artifacts. [aslideshow] Eroded Riverbank. Phon D. Sutton Recreation Area east of Granite Reef Dam.

High Water Mark. Below the 101/202 interchange where Mesa, Tempe, and the Reservation meet.

Transient's Tent. Below the 101/202 interchange where Mesa, Tempe, and the Reservation meet.

Faded Memories. Below the 101/202 interchange where Mesa, Tempe, and the Reservation meet.

Post Flood Detritus. Salt River at Central Avenue in Phoenix.

Plastic Bag High Water Mark. Salt River at Central Avenue in Phoenix.

Dry River Bed. Salt River at 7th Ave in Phoenix.

Thirst Buster. Salt River at 7th Ave in Phoenix.

El Mirage Flooding. Salt River at El Mirage Rd west of Phoenix.

Gillespie Dam Blown Out By Flooding. Gillespie Dam."

Fish Stranded After Flooding. Gillespie Dam.


I am an archaeologist attempting to piece together the meaning of each pile of trash dumped and beer can left behind. Who, why, when? People have left marks of recreation, as well. Fire pits, beer cans, and fishing wire. Good times gone, more than just footprints left behind.

I become sensitive to the difference between different kinds of dry. The dry of the surrounding desert contrasted against the dry of the riverbed, which is filled with the memory of water.

This project is part of the Phoenix Transect Project at Arizona State University.

The project can be seen in its entirety at http://www.adamthorman.com/saltriverproject.html as well.

Contributor's Biography:

Adam Thorman was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He received his BFA in Photography from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University in 2003 and his MFA from Arizona State University in 2009. His work has been exhibited nationally. He currently splits his time between Berkeley, CA and Prescott, AZ where he teaches photography at Prescott College.

Arizona Testbowl: Denying Human Rights and Experimenting with the Ecological Integrity of the San Francisco Peaks

In Northern Arizona, on the slopes of the state’s highest peak, stands an on-going controversy illuminating deep cultural divides.