September 2013

Wildfires and Watersheds – Proactive Best Management Practices (Part II)


Michael Aune



When the New Mexico Senate and House of Representatives voted to approve HJM24 without any dissenting votes this past legislative session, each member made a commitment to “develop and implement proactive best management practices to eliminate risks prior to forest fire, flooding or other disruptions in the watersheds.” The subsequent letter that the NM Legislature sent to the five members of NM’s Congressional delegation further stated: “It is imperative that such damage be prevented in advance due to the even higher cost of major repair…to watersheds as a result of wildfires on the National Forests.”


HJM24 began as an effort to address potential damage from wildfires to all watersheds within NM, as well as the to the San Juan-Chama Project infrastructure in southern Colorado. Though HJM24 was amended to focus only on the San Juan-Chama Project, HM65 restored all of the watersheds originating on National Forests within NM. This also passed the NM House without a dissenting vote.


Best Management Practices

What are “proactive best management practices,” and how do they relate to watersheds and National Forests? Two things to remember: wildfires tend to race uphill, and flash floods after wildfires tend to race downhill. If you tried to park a VW Beetle on the train tracks at the bottom of a hill to stop a runaway train, that would probably be a “failed best management practice.” This analogy was illustrated by Los Alamos National Laboratory on January 26, 2012 during its Stormwater Permit Public Meeting. A PowerPoint presentation, along with mounted photos, showed examples of failed best management practices where former rock-check dams had been washed out by the flash-flooding after the Las Conchas wildfire in 2011. These structures were the metaphorical Beetle trying to stop the runaway train. What happened at Santa Clara Canyon and to the Dixon Orchard after the Las Conchas fire are the vivid results. The Pecos Canyon flooding after the Tres Lagunas fire has further demonstrated this.


Conversely, a “best management practice” would be to install hundreds, perhaps thousands, of smaller rainwater (flooding) retention basins toward the top of the mountains to slow the speed of the flow before it picks up steam and becomes a destructive flash flood. As you move downhill, the basins become larger in size, but it is important not to depend on just a few retention basins at the bottom of a hill. The benefits of more retention basins toward the top include holding water, including snowmelt, for longer periods of time to allow it to soak into the ground at the higher elevations. This minimizes the stress on trees, though doesn’t eliminate it, due to the prolonged drought. This approach also allows water to migrate gradually below ground to feed shallow wells and ultimately, over many years, recharges aquifers on which many communities depend for their domestic water supply. Beginning at the top of the mountains, these retention basins would be built with available soil and rocks in already existing drainages, perhaps with structures such as a “rock check dam” only a foot or two high. The key is that such structures would not look like structures. There would be parabolic waterways established with very broad retention structures to hold much of the water where it falls.

Another proactive best management practice deals with hazardous fuels reduction before they can generate a wildfire racing uphill. This means restoring forests to a more natural setting with a diverse age of trees and vegetation. With a prolonged drought, the carrying capacity of the land is reduced. Trees die. Even with the monsoon rains that seem to shift our attention away from drought, there is no one who can raise his or her arms and bring all the dead trees back to life. Perhaps some of the trees not yet dead may recover if there is less competition for rain and snowmelt. In either case, it appears inevitable that there will be more wildfires because of the large numbers of standing “kiln-dried lumber.”


National Forests managers in NM might want to look at the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming. The goals there are for long-term stewardship and “sustainable forest products” (e.g. biomass for energy, paper and pellets). Their methods include removing dead and dying trees and reducing hazardous fuels. However, hundreds of slash piles containing such biomass will be burned, and that adds to climate change. Forests here would be better served by finding constructive uses for biomass.


Though the NM Legislature acted with unanimous approval of HJM24 and HM65, lawmakers were not as enthusiastic in supporting an actual “boots-on-the-ground” solution. One proposal called for the establishment of the NM Civilian Conservation Corps to undertake work as described above. This would have put 1,100 people to work to “create jobs and job training for preservation and protection of all headwaters and watersheds, all acequias and diversions and other related natural and manmade water infrastructure.” There would be 100 teams with 10 workers and one leader per team distributed across NM to conduct preventive work in areas threatened by potential wildfires, and they would conduct rehabilitation work in watersheds where wildfires caused major damage. The cost, projected at $43 million, seems high, compared to the millions spent fighting fires within NM in just the past three years, but thankfully, NM has not suffered the loss of life such as in Arizona with the death of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots fighting the Yarnell wildfire. Forty-three million dollars is a small price, considering these potential costs; yet no member of the NM Legislature has backed this expenditure.


The NM Public Regulation Commission has taken positive steps with its Wildfire Task Force. Commissioners Valerie Espinoza and Patrick Lyons have called together an important group of representatives from groups such as PNM, local electric co-ops, the NM state forester, the State Land Office, the state fire marshall, and the US Forest Service. This task force is addressing the wildfire issue because both the Tres Lagunas and Thompson Ridge fires started when downed trees fell across electric lines. It should be pointed out these were on private lands, though the fires quickly spread to the National Forests.


During the July 10, meeting, Gilbert Zepeda, acting regional forester for the Southwestern Region of the US Forest Service, talked about guidelines regarding utility easements that were implemented within Arizona in 2006. These included ways to address overgrowth in easements that are challenging to mitigate due to provisions for endangered species as well as cultural considerations. Zepeda stated that, due to the potential for more catastrophic wildfires, it is time for the guidelines to include the two-state area of Arizona and New Mexico.


Commissioner Lyons expressed concerns that rather than try to come up with new solutions that may not work, NM should look into what has worked in other states. An example cited was the manual created for California that applies to all utilities regarding easements in wildfire-prone areas. It is my view that NM’s PRC Task Force is wise in taking a collaborative approach that brings many players to the table with the intention of reducing or eliminating wildfires caused by downed power lines. Still, there is much more to do.




Michael Aune studied headwaters of major watersheds for over 40 years and began studying wildfires and their impact on watersheds after experiencing the School House Park fire while living in Wyoming in 1988. He serves on the PRC Wildfire Task Force.





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