March 2016

Protecting New Mexico’s Wetland Gems


Rachel Conn



Amigos Bravos and Western Environmental Law Center are working to identify and protect important wetlands in the Carson and Santa Fe national forests in northern New Mexico. These “Wetland Gems” have been defined using recently mapped statewide wetland data. Working with GeoSpatial Services of St. Mary’s University in Minnesota, the data have identified specific wetlands types, wetlands significant for specific functions and wetlands meeting certain locational criteria:

  • Headwater wetlands
  • Headwater wetlands that discharge to a stream
  • Spring-fed wetlands
  • Headwater wetlands connected to known cold-water fish-bearing streams
  • Wetlands that perform surface-water detention
  • Wetlands that perform stream-flow maintenance
  • Wetland complexes considered to be important for wildlife habitat


Eight Wetland Gems have been identified and mapped in the Carson National Forest. An interactive pdf of these can be downloaded at A process is now under way to identify Wetland Gems in the Santa Fe National Forest.

 Carson National Forest Wetlands Map


Why Are New Mexico Wetlands Important?

 Wetlands provide significant economic, social, and cultural benefits. For example, healthy wetland systems can help maintain sustained flows in rivers, streams and acequias. Wetlands, functionally, are the sponges of watersheds. They soak up floodwaters and snowmelt, and, then, when a stream begins to drop below its normal level, they drain back into the main stream and augment the flow. This slow release can provide crucial flow to downstream communities during dry times of the year.


Wetlands can also help recharge groundwater supplies. Recharge from wetlands occurs primarily around the edges of wetlands. This means that even small wetlands, which have a high edge-to-volume ratio, despite being small in size, can provide important groundwater-recharge functions.


Wetlands also mitigate flooding. During the intense spring runoff that northern New Mexico experiences from the mountains throughout the region, wetlands moderate spring stream flows by providing natural storage for surface water.


Wetlands are often called the “kidneys of the landscape” because of their functions as receivers of water and waste from natural and human sources. They have many attributes that help improve water quality:

  1. Reduction of the speed of the water entering a wetlands allows sediments and chemicals in the sediments to drop out of the water column.
  2. Anaerobic and aerobic processes that occur in wetlands promote denitrification, chemical precipitation and other chemical reactions that remove certain chemicals from the water
  3. High rates of mineral uptake by wetland vegetation, along with a high rate of burial in sediments when the plants die
  4. High diversity of decomposers and decomposition processes
  5. Large areas of shallow water leading to significant sediment-water exchange
  6. Accumulation of peat that allows for the permanent burial of chemicals


Wetlands are critical to the food chain and biodiversity; a significant percentage of terrestrial animals use wetlands for a portion of their lifecycle. Wetlands in New Mexico provide critical habitat for fish, fur animals and waterfowl and support recreational fishing and hunting.


At the global level, wetlands contribute to the stability of global levels of available nitrogen, atmospheric sulfur, carbon dioxide and methane. They are also important sinks for carbon and are critical in increasing a landscape’s resilience and ability to adapt to climate change.


New Mexico Wetlands Are Threatened

 New Mexico is the fifth-largest U.S. state, totaling an area of 122,000 square miles. However, less than 1 percent of these lands—482,000 acres—is covered in wetlands and riparian areas. This is over one-third less than the 720,000 acres of New Mexican wetlands that existed in the 1780s. During the last century, the Río Grande, New Mexico’s major watercourse, was significantly channelized to minimize flooding and control the discharge of irrigation waters. This channelization has eliminated the river’s natural course and flow and has severely limited the water-land relationship that would normally have allowed establishment of wetland vegetation along river corridors throughout New Mexico. Instead, there are degraded banks that contribute to severe soil erosion, sediment buildup in rivers and reservoirs and the loss of habitat for fisheries, waterfowl and wildlife.


Many wetlands in our headwaters are suffering. Impacts from climate change, roads, off-road vehicle use and ungulate grazing—cows, deer and elk—all contribute to wetland degradation. These stressors cause erosion in the form of headcuts and channelization that result in the draining of these wetland systems. As a result, many of the wetlands in the Santa Fe and Carson national forests are drying up and are encroached upon by dry-land woody species. As wetlands dry up, they lose their ability to act as sponges and no longer provide the myriad of ecosystems services such as wildlife habitat, stream-flow maintenance and flood control.


Wetlands Provide Ecological and Cultural Resiliency

Resiliency is the capacity of an ecological or community system to maintain its function in the face of stress. A system with high resiliency withstands and bounces back from stress better than a system with low resiliency. Wetlands and other waters originating on national forests in northern New Mexico function as core, essential ecological elements of the broader Río Grande watershed. Emphasizing protection and restoration of these water resources can improve resiliency and thereby have significant positive impacts on social, economic and ecological sustainability across the watershed and broader landscape.


New Mexico’s water supplies are severely threatened by impacts from climate change. Over the next few decades, snowpack is predicted to be smaller and to melt faster. In addition, weather events are predicted to be more extreme, resulting in increases of both droughts and floods. Wetlands are uniquely capable of providing resiliency in the face of both of these extreme weather events. In addition, wetlands, when well managed, have the best capacity of any ecosystem to retain carbon through permanent sequestration but, when not well managed, contribute to climate change by emitting methane to the Earth’s atmosphere. Stopping further degradation and loss of New Mexico’s wetlands can decrease future methane emissions.


Get Involved!

 If you support protecting Wetland Gems under the planning updates that are under way in the Santa Fe and Carson national forests, let the Forest Service know. Email and


Amigos Bravos and Western Environmental Law Center are hosting a Santa Fe National Forest Wetland Gems Workshop on March 21, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Call 575.758.3874, or email to RSVP.



Rachel Conn is projects director of Amigos Bravos. 575.758.3874,,



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