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Forests to Faucets: A sense of urgency

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What used to be a green landscape to the north and west is now black with charred forests.

Flooding — dangerous monsoon flooding — is causing erosion and destruction, taking out structures, threatening lives, forever altering forest and riparian ecosystems and soil productivity. The town’s filtration systems are jammed with sediment and ash. Faucets are either dry or spitting undrinkable sludge. Businesses are closed, some houses boarded up. There’s a mass, 15,000-person panic and a chaotic exodus from town, but, for many residents, really no place to go.  

“Trust me. You don’t want to go through this.”

These were the words of Raton’s Mayor Segotta at the conclusion of a visit to the Raton city office and then the nearby Track Fire, which impacted the city’s water supply during this past fire season.

The “this” to which he was referring isn’t the doomsday scenario depicted above. The city of Raton avoided that for several reasons, perhaps the most important of which is that Raton has an alternative supply of water from the Cimarron River. In addition, Raton did not receive significant monsoon rains immediately after the Track Fire, avoiding severe damage to its water supply from post-fire flooding.

Nevertheless, the city recognizes that there’s a two-to- three-year window during which damaging flooding could occur — until sufficient natural re-vegetation and erosion mitigation efforts are in place.

No, the doomsday scenario is more likely closer to our reality if a catastrophic wildfire hits the Gallinas and neighboring watersheds and we’re not prepared or have done nothing to try to cool or slow it down and mitigate its damaging effects.  

The city of Raton was able to respond immediately to the aftermath of the Track Fire because it had a reserve fund that was used to check post-fire erosion and damage to the city’s reservoirs in its now mostly burned-over watershed. Over the years, they had also conducted some hazardous fuels reduction treatments through forest thinnings.

However, according to one city official, because the conditions for the Track Fire were so extreme — relative humidity of 4 percent, sustained winds over 40 mph during a severe drought, and careless man-caused ignition — treatments did not appear to hold or slow down the fire.  

Asked if he or the city would have done anything differently, the official suggested that more aggressive forest thinning — to 60 or fewer trees per acre — may have helped at least slow the fire down and aid in suppression efforts. But there’s no guarantee, no quick fix.

The New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute at Highlands University (www.nmfwri.org), which, over the past six years, has been working with its stakeholders on forest health and fuel reduction efforts throughout the state, engaged with the city and county in December 2010 on the precarious position of the city of Las Vegas relative to its source of water — the Gallinas watershed.  Over the past 12 months, that meeting has evolved into an effort which I referred to last week as the GGWAG — the Greater Gallinas Watershed Action Group — for lack of a better name and because the group, despite having met five times over the past few months, is too busy dealing with real issues, strategies and actions to take the time to name itself.  

The group is also too focused on the challenge of securing the health and safety of the Gallinas and neighboring watersheds to engage in lengthy and distracting philosophical discussions or unproductive political positioning.  

Originally convened and facilitated through a partnership between the Institute and New Mexico State Forestry, key stakeholders at the GGWAG table include the city of Las Vegas, San Miguel County, the Office of the State Engineer, the U.S. Forest Service, Tierra y Montes SWCD, Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance, local landowners, private citizens and business owners, representatives of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, and others.

Finally, to hear about and see first-hand the devastation of the fire and its impacts on Raton, the Institute recently arranged a visit to Raton and the aftermath of the Track Fire for Mayor Ortiz and a delegation from San Miguel County, including County Manager Les Montoya, Fire Marshall Russell Pacheco and Dennis English from the county’s Office of Emergency Management.  

The experience was sobering and instilled a renewed sense of urgency — reminding everyone that we “don’t want to go through this” and of the vital connection between the forest and the faucet.

Andrew F. Egan is a professor and director of the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute at Highlands University. He may be reached at 505-426-2081 or afegan@nmhu.edu.