Terry Sullivan: Safeguarding the Rio Grande Water Shed with Innovative Forest Management Practices

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A major element of the enchantment of New Mexico is the beauty of our forested mountains. Until the last 100 years, those forests were maintained by natural processes such as frequent, low-intensity fires that would act to cleanse the landscape and create the perfect balance of vegetation and trees. However, over the past century, as we have suppressed natural fires, our forests have grown significantly more dense with trees.  This creates more fuel for fires, and combined with steadily increasing summer temperatures is causing wildfires to burn hotter, this often results in catastrophic wildfires. These wildfires not only destroy wildlife habitat, homes and community infrastructure, but they also impact rural economies through the loss of tourism and recreational opportunities. Restoration of overgrown forests that act as fuel for wildfires is a critical strategy to reduce the risk of high-intensity wildfire, and a few years ago such treatments were underway only at a very small scale.

The Las Conchas Fire of 2011 illustrated the problem we faced: nearly 45% of the 156,000 acres fire burned at high severity. Thunderstorms over the high-severity burn areas resulted in massive debris flows in mountain streams which fed into the Rio Grande. Water withdrawals were halted for municipal use by Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and tons of debris was deposited in Cochiti Lake, closing the area to recreation and dumping excessive sediment in the reservoir. It was obvious that proactive steps on a large scale were needed to protect the Rio Grande and its forested watershed – which needed at least 300,000 acres of treatment over the next 10 years to reduce fire risks.

In 2012, The Nature Conservancy started a planning process to establish a water fund to help pay for activities that would mitigate the intensity of wildfire, such as thinning overgrown forests, as well as stream restoration and flood mitigation to protect the water supply. The Rio Grande Water Fund, after a two-year planning process, was officially launched in July 2014 along with a comprehensive plan that identifies forest and watershed areas at highest risk of damaging fire and post-fire flooding, determines the full extent of treatment needed, quantifies increases in water yield as a result of large-scale restoration treatments, and summarizes the full economic costs of wildfire and savings if fire is avoided.

Since the Rio Grande Water Fund’s launch, the number of forest acres restored in the watershed has tripled. This work improved the habitat for many forest-dependent species, from elk to salamander, and for cold-water fish such as trout. On the economic side, the restoration activities created nearly 70 jobs and generated 8,500 cords of commercial firewood and 1,500 cords of community firewood.

This conservation initiative—securing water for future generations of New Mexicans—will continue for the next two decades, providing jobs, firewood, and forest products to bolster the local economy. Working together with over 40 partners, The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico is protecting and restoring the forests critical to the state’s water supply and to the entire Rio Grande watershed.

Terry Sullivan is The Nature Conservancy New Mexico chapter State Director. The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.