The History of Water at Hueco Tanks

Water is the most important element in the Hueco Tanks State Park.  Without the natural water supplies, most of the life that is present, animal or plant, would not be.  In addition to the natural water sources, man has been building water retention structures for about two thousand years.

Escontrias Dam in Mescalero Canyon

In the beginning there was the ice age.  Temperatures were cooler and there was plenty of rain.  That meant that there were forests and large game animals, and life was good for the people who wandered through the area.

Then, between 11,000 and 8,000 years ago, the process of desertification of the area began. The Piñon Pines disappeared, leaving a Juniper-Oak woodland.  The rains diminished and the flora and fauna gradually changed to what we see today.  The current climate was in place 4,000 years ago, with summer rains and more frequent droughts.  The transition to modern desert scrub was completed about 3,600 years ago, with the appearance of Ocotillo, Lechuguilla and Creosote Bush.  Despite the severity of these changes, there are still several plants at Hueco Tanks that are left over from the ice age.  Those are detailed in the section on Rare Plants.  That these plants still survive here is testament to the way the rocks channel and hold water.  Apparently the sand found at the base of the mountains, which is made up of eroded igneous rock, is also better at holding water than the sand in other areas of the desert.

From the time people started to live in the Hueco Tanks area, they have been trying to control the water supply.  There are at least ten documented water control features within the park that were most likely built by the Jornada Mogollon, who lived in the area between 200 AD and 1450 AD.  These features include the cistern in Comanche Cave. They had a pit house village in the vicinity of what is now known as Site 17.  It is speculated that the Jornada Mogollon were driven out of the area by a lack of water.  The Escontrias family built 15 dams on their ranch.  Seven dams are earthen; seven are built from local rocks; The composition of the one that no longer exists is unknown.

The Cistern in Comanche Cave

Between 1960 and 1963 some developers built some huge earthen dams in an effort to create a lake for a resort.  The dam that runs between West Mountain and North Mountain, which is visible from the park road, is one of those.  The developers’ idea was to build a resort with a lake, so they could have water skiing and other water sports out in the desert.  Fortunately for us, though unfortunately for them, when they started to pump water into their lake they discovered that the water ran out as fast as they could pump it in.  So the resort never happened, and today we have a wonderful park.  Unfortunately though, bulldozing all that earth up into a dam resulted in the destruction untold amounts of archeological evidence.

© Susan L. Stone 2015