April 2016

Determining the Future of New Mexico’s Watersheds


Local Strategies Generated at Regional Water-Planning Meetings


Joanne Hilton and Rosemary Romero


Río Grande Restoration, an Embudo, New Mexico-based nonprofit focused on improving the health of rivers and watersheds, has received a WaterSMART grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to explore creation of a Río Chama Watershed Partnership. The project’s goals are to develop a citizen’s voice in water-management decision-making processes and develop an implementation plan for improving conditions in the Río Chama and its tributary streams such as the ríos Cebolla and Gallina.


Río Grande Restoration (RGR) sees its watershed plan as supplementing and informing planning processes already being undertaken by the Carson and Santa Fe national forests, Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), Río Arriba County and Upper Chama Soil and Water Conservation Districts and helping to address the region’s future efforts to resolve important water- and land-use issues.


Chama, Abiquiú and Cebolla


In August 2015, with the community-organizing support of Rosemary Romero, who is also working with the ISC on regional water planning, RGR hosted well-attended public meetings in Abiquiú, Chama and Cebolla to hear from neighbors, community groups, scientists and managing agencies. They discussed the impacts of flooding, pollution, land use, wildlife habitat, recreation, the role of science and local knowledge in public health and safety, and the conservation of vital resources. They also reviewed the watershed-partnership initiative and discussed a set of future projects and activities that could support improvement of streams, wetlands and aquifers.


Local citizens with diverse perspectives were asked to develop ideas about what a healthy watershed would look like and what values were most important to them. Among the specific issues they identified were environmental releases from El Vado and Abiquiú reservoirs and their impacts on fish, wildlife, recreation and riparian ecology; groundwater depletion in the Río Cebolla; wastewater treatment in the village of Chama; landslides, flood damage, forest conditions, wildfire in certain areas; oil and gas exploration; rural development and cultural preservation.


People expressed that they want healthy forests, active thinning, more water in the river, protection of drinking water, control of sedimentation and noxious weeds, forage for animals, wildlife corridors, management of livestock populations, floods, erosion and landslides, as well as better management of oil and gas development, fracking and contamination of wells from septic tanks. They were also concerned about lack of water rights and water storage.


Río Chama Watershed Congreso


Seeking opportunities for collaboration and to develop recommendations for the region’s water- and land-management challenges, on Feb. 26 and 27 students and other citizens, agency planners and nongovernmental organizations—Río Grande Water Fund, Trout Unlimited, Chama Peak Land Alliance—came together at the Río Chama Watershed Congreso, held at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú.


Local mediator/facilitator Rosemary Romero welcomed the group, reviewed the purpose of the meeting and provided a summary of the outcomes from the previous three meetings. Río Chama Watershed Partnership project manager Steve Harris thanked the project’s partners (Chama Peak Land Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, New Mexico Wildlife Center and River Source), mentioned that there are several planning efforts with a variety of funding sources going on that overlap with the project, and presented an overview. He described the region as a “hydrologic commons” that needs to be protected and restored and noted that the word “Chama” in Keres means tomorrow, and, in Tewa, wrestling place. “We are in the wrestling place of tomorrow,” he said.


To set the foundation for issues identified from the previous public meetings, six presentations, followed by questions and answers, were prepared by the Congreso’s key partners:


Forests Health/Restoration—Monique DiGiorgio, San Juan-Chama Partnership

Education/Economic Development—Rich Schrader, River Source

Water Management/Streamflow—Steve Harris, Río Grande Restoration

Landslides, Flooding, and Erosion—Keenan Boliek-Poling

Fish and Wildlife —Katherine Eagleson, New Mexico Wildlife Center

Río Grande Water Fund—Laura McCarthy, The Nature Conservancy

Students from Gallina, New Mexico’s Coronado High School presented their study of water quality in Cañones Creek and offered recommendations for watershed management.


In small groups of their choosing related to each issue, the participants brainstormed a variety of strategies such as providing environmental flows, developing wildlife corridors, fencing projects, reducing the elk population by working with agencies such as New Mexico Game and Fish, creating jobs, educational opportunities, rehabilitating acequia diversions and improving fisheries.


ISC Regional Water Planning

Joanne Hilton and Rosemary Romero


In 2013, the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer and the ISC initiated an approach for updating 16 regional water plans that could help inform the State Water Plan, as required by the authorizing legislation. Surrounding states have been actively planning for dwindling water supplies due to prolonged drought in the Southwest that, despite a respite in 2015, studies suggest is likely to continue. So it was timely to begin to update the regional water plans. Many were 10 years old.


Critical for the plans has been the funding aspect of projects or programs needed to meet long-term water supply and demand. Many regions used New Mexico Environment Department funding for addressing water-quality issues, while others depended on U.S. Forest Service Collaborative Forest Restoration dollars, Soil and Water Conservation dollars and National Resources Conservation Service support.


Another important funding source for many projects is the Water Trust Board. This funder prioritizes proposals that are in an ISC-accepted Regional Water Plan, which includes publicly funded water infrastructure, conservation, flood prevention, watershed and endangered species projects.


The ISC Regional Water Planning Update includes the following objectives:

Updating 16 regional water plans in a common timeframe

Providing a better process for informing funding agencies of water-project needs

Informing future updates of the State Water Plan

Providing opportunity for local collaboration

The ISC has used several consulting teams to help the 16 regions with their updates. The planning team of Joanne Hilton, hydrologist, and Rosemary Romero, facilitator, has been working with regions mostly in the northern part of the state. Their efforts have dovetailed with other projects such as the Río Chama Watershed Plan development and the San Juan Partnership, led by the Chama Peak Land Alliance, which is focused on addressing watershed issues on private lands.

ISC’s team, in addition to the above-mentioned meetings, also held stakeholder meetings in Española and Hernández. In 2014 and 2015, five ISC-facilitated meetings focused on developing a steering committee and an outreach plan in coordination with the designated chair of the steering committee, led by Lucía Sánchez, director of the Río Arriba Land Use Department.


The next phase of ISC’s program will be for the steering committee and consultants to review the projects, programs and policies of the Regional Water Plan update and the public input. The draft plans will then be submitted to the ISC for approval.

Grant, Hidalgo, Catron and Luna Counties

On March 13, a public meeting was held in Silver City to help the four-county region of Grant, Hidalgo, Catron and Luna develop strategies for their regional water plan. The ISC’s contractors will put the proposed strategies into a draft form and return it to the stakeholders for comments. The contractors have also updated the Projects, Programs and Policies list, including all proposals on the Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plans.

Strategies reached by consensus included the following items:

Watershed restoration including erosion control, water-quality protection and post-fire riparian restoration

Grant County regional water supply and its distribution

Education for the four-county area on issues such as septic-system impacts including conservation, capacity building, resources and energy efficiency

Gila Diversion Projects (Arizona Water Settlements Act)

Flood-control dams and infrastructure repair

Use of effluent water for aquifer recharge, irrigation and recreation

Hydrogeological investigation of the Plains of San Augustín, which impacts the Tularosa, Alamosa and Gila rivers and connected ground waters

Water conservation, source water protection, drought mitigation and rainwater harvesting

Development of a Food Hub, which includes protecting and acquiring agricultural water rights and purchase of mining water rights for other uses such as agriculture and economic development

Maintaining and optimizing existing diversions and infrastructure on the San Francisco, Mimbres and Tularosa rivers


These various initiatives hold the potential to create the momentum needed to resolve significant issues that affect many downstream planning efforts. They may instigate significant policy changes that will address long-term needs throughout the state of New Mexico.

Steve Harris is an Embudo-based outfitter and guide, as well as executive director of Río Grande Restoration, a river protection nonprofit.


Hydrologist Joanne Hilton has more than 25 years of experience conducting water resource investigations. She has been the project manager for development of water plans for seven New Mexico regions and worked on technical portions of updates for 16 regional plans.


Rosemary Romero has worked on natural resource issues for 30 years and has co-written nine Watershed Plans for New Mexico. She is a former city councilor and planning commissioner for the city of Santa Fe.




Related Programs:


San Juan-Chama Partnership—brings together public and private landowners to address watershed-restoration projects: 970.335.8174, chamapeak@gmail.com, http://chamapeak.org/programs/san-juan-chama/


Collaborative Forest Restoration Programs—provide funding for projects on federal, tribal and state lands: 505.842.3425, wdunn@fs.fed.us, www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r3/workingtogether/grants/?cid=fsbdev3_022022


Interstate Stream Commission—facilitates regional water planning: 505.827.6167, angela.bordegaray@state.nm.us, www.ose.state.nm.us/index.php


New Mexico Land Conservancy—helps develop agricultural/conservation easements to protect rural lands: 505.986.3801, ext. 107, bmills@nmlandconservancy.org, www.nmlandconservancy.org


Río Grande Water Trust—helps build sustainable funding for a 10- to 30-year program of large-scale forest and watershed-restoration treatments in the Río Grande basin: www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/newmexico/new-mexico-rio-grande-water-fund-2015-highlights.xml


Chama Flow Project—Río Grande Restoration, in consultation with a broad range of stakeholders, seeks to mimic the natural hydrology of the river with water releases from El Vado and other reservoirs.


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