Fire and Water: A Citizen–Manager Congreso

By Steve Harris

The Río Chama Watershed Congreso had its third annual renewal in Abiquiú on a recent Saturday, with a day-long exploration of the theme “Fire and Water.” Wildfire and irrigation are high-anxiety issues for the Río Arriba region, especially following a winter with little snowpack. The 80-plus participants came to offer ideas about how we might respond to some challenging portents for the future of northern New Mexico.

A guiding principle of the Congreso is that shared water and land resources might be better managed than they are currently by integrating local knowledge with scientific findings. Thus, principal managers of agencies like the Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Office of State Engineer and Corps of Engineers were invited to share the details of their missions and programs with citizen stakeholders, but also to listen to local observations and ideas. Organizers hope that a true two-way dialogue will create a virtuous cycle of mutual trust and communication, reducing historical conflicts and helping resolve natural resource issues. Everyone’s invited to this “collaborative conservation.”

Fire Suppression Equals Hot, Catastrophic Fires

Mary Steuver (N.M. State Forestry–Chama District) and Ellis Margolis (U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist) started the day with a fascinating in-depth dive into the fire history of the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains (complete with tree-ring sections), which demonstrated how fire suppression has actually increased the impacts of today’s wildfires; from an historical recurrence interval of 6–12 years to today’s 138 years, the set-up for record-setting blazes like the Las Conchas fire and a harbinger of more such destructive fires ahead.

As she presented the 2018 Seasonal Fire Outlook from Southwest Coordination Center (the joint BLM/Forest Service fire response team), Steuver confirmed that a wet 2017 season had resulted in a lush growth of grasses and shrubs that had dried overwinter into an abundance of fine fuels that could trigger any number of hot fires as this drought year continues.  She noted that recent rains had actually reduced the Chama’s drought status somewhat, from “extreme” to “severe,” a small comfort with dry and windy conditions forecast for the spring. “We shouldn’t be lulled into complacency now, as conditions for ignition and spread of fires is a serious threat,” she warned.

The Río Chama Congreso, hosted at Ghost Ranch, is the first public extension of the San Juan Chama Watershed Partnership, organized and sponsored by local conservation groups, including the Chama Peak Land Alliance, an association of private landowners who use forest thinning and controlled burns to improve conditions for wildlife, livestock and ecosystem health. Emily Hohman, CPLA’s director, suggested that “the way to get ahead of these mega-fires is through implementing Prescribed Fire.” Noting that humans have, for thousands of years, used fire to manage the world’s landscapes, Hohman detailed how her membership has safely and effectively used fire on their properties. The Alliance is sponsoring a Fire Training Exchange in Chama, starting April 30 (

Ending the morning, delegates also heard from regional Fire Wise coordinators and the New Mexico. Rural Water Association (NMRWA), which both offer funding and programs to help homeowners establish defensible space to mitigate damage caused by fire at the “Wildland-Urban Interface.” Bill Trimarco (Fire Wise coordinator for Archuleta County, CO.) told delegates that 100–300-foot buffers are rural homeowners’ minimum clearing targets to prevent fire-driven embers from torching their homes. NMRWA’s Martha Graham explained the impact of a 2017 controlled-burn-gone-wild on the Vallecitos Mutual Domestic water system and how her agency struggles to assist the village in reconstructing  treatment infrastructure that the fire destroyed.

Talks at the Lunch Table

If communication and relationship-building wasn’t enough inducement, the partnership had arranged lunch for the delegates at the Ghost Ranch dining hall, where tables were set for discussions of opportunities and challenges, led by representatives of partnering non-profit organizations. These more intimate hour-long conversations were led by Trout Unlimited (fisheries), New Mexico Wildlife Center (youth engagement), N.M. Association of Conservation Districts (regional conservation partnership program grants), Río Arriba Concerned Citizens (oil and gas leasing), Río Grande Restoration (Chama River environmental flows) and Chama Peak Land Alliance (fire management). Outcomes of these conversations will be posted, along with slides from the days scientific presentations, at

Climate and Water Security

Dagmar Llewellyn (Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist), who co-authored a study of climate-change induced risks to the Río Grande and U.S. West, talked about her study’s findings. “With the current warming of the planet, more of our water cycle is in the atmosphere,” said Llewellyn, “leading to deeper droughts and, when precipitation does come, larger and more severe floods.” In addition to expecting precipitation to drop by an annual average of 15 percent, greater reductions in snowpack should be anticipated, as snowfall initiates later in the winter and melts earlier in the spring. For farmers, adapting to the climate future will depend on developing ways to conserve summer monsoon moisture. “Expect the forests of the region to decrease in extent,” she added, “as a result of a vapor-pressure deficit in their stems challenging the survival of  our trees.”

A popular feature of past Congresos has been the presentation of the summer streamflow forecasts by water managers. Paige Pegram, the N.M. Interstate Stream Commission’s Río Grande bureau chief, drew this year’s assignment. On March 1, the upper Río Grande in Colorado measured less than 60 percent of its long-term average, while the Chama stood at around 45 percent and the Sangre de Cristo watersheds were 35 percent, compared with last years’ 137 percent (Río Grande), 167 percent (Río Chama) and 110 percent (Sangre de Cristo). Middle Río Grande water users do have the benefit of water carried over in reservoirs from 2017, but that El Vado Reservoir is projected to be fully depleted by August. Acequia Association parciantes, lacking reservoir storage, must plan on a meager snowmelt runoff from which to water their crops. Obtaining reservoir storage, long desired by mayordomos, gains even greater urgency in what may be the lowest spring runoff since recordkeeping began.

Farmers vs. Greens?

Ironically, high river flows, such as those in spring, 2016 and 2017, have also created existential problems for Río Chama acequias, as headgate structures and riverbanks were inundated by federal water operations. From a flood control perspective, the 2017 releases could have been moved out of Abiquiú Reservoir quickly, except that the designated channel capacity wouldn’t allow higher flows. It was the long duration of high water that collapsed riverbanks in Abiquiú, Hernández and other communities below the dam.

In February, the Río Chama Acequia Association adopted a resolution calling for the Corps of Engineers devote funds to a study of ways “to mitigate the adverse effects of high flows required for flood control and conveyance of stored water to downstream users.” “But,” cautioned one delegate, “asking the Corps to engineer a solution to this problem is just asking for bulldozers, concrete and rip-rap.”

Another of the Watershed Partnership and Congreso organizers pointed out, “The river we share is broken. It started happening when El Vado and Abiquiú were built. Sediment in the stream channel was picked up and deposited downstream, resulting in a river that looked like what was intended, a water conveyance system, and a river that doesn’t have the energy to move the sand that comes out of the arroyos. Car bodies and rip-rap will only make worse problems.” A suggestion: Perhaps the Corps’ river restoration division could perform a reconnaissance study on ways to protect the headgates and increase the capacity of the channel?

Meetings are often boring. Meetings don’t really solve problems. But sometimes, meetings like the Chama Watershed Congreso can lead to outcomes and agreement on actions that agencies and citizens can take together to address their problems.  

Summing up what many delegates took away from the Congreso, Daniel Manzanares (Ghost Ranch Facilities Director) said, “Our only way to get through times like this is for everyone, all of us, to work together.”

Steve Harris is a long-time river outfitter and guide on the Río Chama, as well as executive director of Río Grande Restoration and its Chama Flow Project, which seeks to operate El Vado Reservoir for environmental flow releases.

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