Story and photos by Marti Niman
At first glance, the Jackson Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA) outside of Farmington seems an unlikely site for wildlife habitat or even for a river. Tucked between a stretch of warehouses, gas stations and fast-food strip malls, the dirt road into the area winds through dune-like stretches of sand before veering under a small canopy of cottonwoods clustered along the sandy banks of the La Plata River. Much of the river is eroded, undercut, clogged by sediment and overgrown with invasive plant species such as salt cedar, Russian olive and kochia. Both the State Land Office (SLO) and the Department of Game and Fish are conducting separate but cooperative projects to restore native habitat along the La Plata.
“These kinds of collaborative projects are the most effective way to address many of our ecological concerns in New Mexico,” State Land Commissioner Ray Powell said. “We are able to optimize expertise, revenue and staffing for the greatest impact.”
The SLO leases 400 acres of trust land to the Game and Fish Commission as part of the 1,500-acre Jackson Lake WMA. The SLO received a $65,000 grant from the River Ecosystem Restoration Initiative (RERI) in 2011 to restore the native ecosystem along the roughly one-mile stretch of river bisecting trust land. Managed by the New Mexico Environment Department’s Surface Water Quality Bureau, the RERI is designed to rehabilitate the integrity of New Mexico’s river ecosystems. The SLO initiated the project to amend the river’s flow and replace invasive plants with those native to the area.
“The La Plata is impaired by excess sediment, which impacts oxygen levels for fish and invertebrates,” said Clay Bowers, conservation biologist for the SLO. “We diverted a major tributary that carried sediment in a sheet flow from the uplands, so it would place the sediment on the flood plain rather than in the river.”
By sleuthing satellite imagery, SLO biologists discovered a 1950s-era historic oxbow, lush with cattails and other native wetland species that thrived from the intermittent flooding. They reconnected the oxbow, so it would overflood the banks, and reconnected with another side channel. “We created five depressions through the side channels to create open water sources for bats,” Bowers said. “They need an area where they can swoop down and drink while flying. If it’s in a tight space, they can’t use it.” The depressions also provide more nesting habitat for waterfowl.
Post vane structures were installed to create a more fluid and softly meandering river, reducing sediment loading during high-flow events. “As it stands now, the river makes aggressive dogleg turns, and the impact of the water against the stream channel takes sediment with it,” Bowers said. “The structures smooth out those bends, so it’s less violent with less undercutting.” The posts are made of 8- to 10-foot-long juniper posts shoved into one side of the channel to direct the river flow away from the shore before it hits the vanes. “During a big pulse, the vanes catch sediment and push the river away,” he said.
Cottonwood and coyote willow harvested on site are two wetland species that were planted alongside the channels, while upland forage for deer include New Mexico olive, golden currant, Torrey’s wolfberry, antelope bitterbrush and false indigo.
“We’re doing what is called deep pole planting, getting the roots into the water table with a 6-foot auger,” Bowers said. “It looks like a pitiful stream, but the groundwater seems pretty reliable. We were hitting the water table when we were planting.” The SLO crew put down native seed forbs and shrubs to help stabilize the riverbank and also provide an important part of the diet for deer, Gambel’s quail and small mammals.
The area sits in a major migration corridor, primarily for deer traveling from Colorado to their wintering ground in New Mexico. These projects will help conserve water that flows from Snow Storm Peak in the La Plata Mountains of Colorado. Contributing agencies are optimistic that the peak will live up to its name and deliver the much-needed snowmelt to help these projects thrive in the spring.
Marti Niman is the New Mexico State Land Office’s public information officer.