Creating Watershed Resilience During Drought

Doghair Burn New Mexico
The Doghair Burn – overly dense trees were all killed by wildfire Photo by Rich Schrader

By Rich Schrader and Emily Wolf

An ancient Chinese proverb says “To have good water, take care of your mountains.” This wisdom conveys the essence of a healthy watershed, which acts like a clean water factory, producing a steady stream of clean and abundant water. In our arid landscape, 70–90 percent of water comes from mountains (FAO, 2003), so it makes sense that we look to the mountains and forests to envision how secure our water future is. Creating a secure water supply also means looking at how we care for rivers and treat water flowing off buildings and streets in our watershed.  

Current Snowpack and Forest Conditions

Snowpack is the battery that recharges our streams, irrigation ditches and aquifers. Today we find snowpack levels in the Río Grande watershed approaching historic lows. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains have an average of 46 percent snowpack and the Jémez watershed’s snowpack is at just 32 percent of normal levels as of March 8, 2018 (NRCS SNOTEL). We will need an extraordinary amount of precipitation to catch up, and this is unlikely, as the drying La Niña pattern is not expected to diminish until May or June 2018.  

Lack of moisture puts additional strain on our forests, where many areas are already in stressed conditions and have an overabundance of small, dense trees. Forest management for over 100 years involving the suppression of natural wildfire has led to trees encroaching into grasslands and the presence of many more growing and needing water than in the past. In the case of the pinyon juniper forests, crowded stands of trees mean an increase of soil erosion as finely rooted grasses lose out in water competition. Efforts to suppress all fires began at the same time widespread industrial logging started in the late 1940s, after land had gone through decades of overgrazing in many grasslands. The current dry period, combined with an unhealthy density of trees in many forests, poses a significant threat of catastrophic wildfires—fires that can burn so hot, soil becomes sterilized and cannot sustain its living microorganisms, and all trees are lost.  

Slowly, efforts have begun in recent years to thin dense stands and use prescribed fire to reduce the tree density while still keeping a forest canopy. More recently, efforts to thin pinyon juniper forests and lop the cuttings into small pieces and scatter them has been shown to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire, improve soil health and reduce erosion. But much more needs to be done.  

Rivers and Stormwater Runoff Conditions in our Cities

Rivers are veins of life that reflect back to us how we treat the land and hillslopes that shed water, sustain and feed them. Too often rivers are treated as an afterthought or even intentionally considered dumping grounds for our waste and stormwater. For many years engineers and city planners believed the best way to manage water in cities was to drain it away as fast as possible to rivers that were seen as the most convenient place for polluted runoff. In the desert Southwest this has led to the creation of urban heat islands where temperatures soar from hot black tops. In addition, the natural sinuosity of rivers was constrained and narrowed to make way for more land development. As a result, water runoff is sent away quickly and powerfully enough to carve deeper into the bed of the river, creating incised channels. This causes the banks of the streams, which used to support moist soils and native trees, to dry up, as the shallow aquifer decreases in elevation and the river channel becomes disconnected from its floodplain.  

Stormwater from buildings, parking lots and streets is often treated as a waste product, something to get rid of. The consequences of covering natural soil with impervious surfaces that shed water include flooding in the short term, and long-term extreme dryness. Causing water to run off fast rushes polluted water to rivers and arroyos and leads to poor water quality.  

Fortunately, people are beginning to see stormwater as a resource and find ways to give rivers more room.  

How can we take steps for watershed resilience on a personal and community/policy level?

The first step in becoming watershed-wise and prepared for drought is to make yourself more aware of your own surroundings. Take a walk around your home or neighborhood to get a better understanding of how dense trees are growing. Or go on a walk during a storm around your home and in your neighborhood and see where the water is lost to roads and arroyos rather than being slowed down. Most likely you’ll find conditions that deserve attention such as soil erosion, water loss, or fire hazards. Also consider going to a workshop on water harvesting, forest health and/or river restoration so your eye becomes better trained to identify concerns.  

The next step is to develop a plan of action to reduce fire risk and slow water down to keep it closer to the land.

Here are some personal actions you can take:

In stands of trees that have dense overlapping canopies, consider thinning some of the branches to reduce the “ladder” fuels that could carry a fire from the ground high up into the trees’ canopy.  In some cases, entire trees can be removed with a focus on cutting the smaller trees growing between larger ones.    

Lop and scatter thinned materials from trees carefully to add organic matter to soil. Do this on a topographic contour to slow stormwater down, allowing it to infiltrate into the land.

Break up compacted soil and add mulch to help retain water. Covering soil with mulch and straw wherever possible effectively protects it from losing water to evaporation.

Find ways to divert water coming off roofs into natural unpaved areas rather than letting it run down driveways and roads.

Install rain barrels to capture runoff from roofs or create shallow rain gardens that catch runoff, feed plants and provide habitat for insects and birds.

Use less water by finding leaks, recycling water more than once, and planting drought-tolerant species.  

On a community / policy level you can:

Support efforts for forest thinning and controlled burns in our forests. While thinning and prescribed burns will not prevent all fires, it reduces the likelihood that forest fires will be catastrophic. Since we live in an area where fires used to be common, we can learn to be more supportive of prescribed fire and forest thinning.

Encourage and support efforts to build green infrastructure such as shallow bioretention basins.  The City of Santa Fe is embarking on a comprehensive plan to improve stormwater management to reduce water pollution and slow water down so it infiltrates into soil rather than eroding soil.  

Support training programs for youth to develop job skills in stewardship of natural resources, green infrastructure and renewable energy fields.  

Support efforts to restore rivers and encourage them to meander, reinstating natural flow regimes and fostering conditions necessary for groundwater recharge.

Progress is being made but change can be slow. If we measure on a range of 0 to 100 percent, with higher numbers reflecting more accomplishments, we are probably at about a 4 percent level now. By training your eye to assess and understand forest and watershed conditions, we can speed up the process of becoming more resilient. Creating watershed resilience for a more secure water future is a growing field and there is much to be done. More jobs need to be created to engage youth in making a living in being caretakers of our mountains, forests and rivers.

Rich Schrader and Emily Wolf work for River Source Inc., which supports people living as good stewards of their watersheds by providing watershed science and policy education, planning, monitoring, ecological restoration and adapting to climate change.

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