HU plans discussion on impact of watershed fire

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By Margaret McKinney
Highlands University
New Mexico Highlands University is presenting a panel discussion this Wednesday on the impact of a wildfire in the Gallinas Watershed.
The science café will be at 5:30 p.m. in the Margaret Kennedy Alumni Hall, 905 University Ave. The university chapter of Sigma XI, a scientific research society, is sponsoring the event as part of its science café series.
Light refreshments will be served.
Science cafés help the public connect with science through an informal sharing of scientific information on important issues. Wednesday’s science café will be a discussion about how prepared Las Vegas is for a wildfire like the 2011 Track Fire near Raton, which burned 28,000 acres.  
The program begins with a talk by Jason Phillips, project manager for KS Berry Engineering, about the Track Fire’s impact on Raton’s water.
The panel discussion will follow, moderated by Richard Plunkett, a Highlands University microbiology professor. The panel includes Craig Conley, Highlands University forestry professor; Andrew Egan, New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute director; Ken Garcia, City of Las Vegas utilities director; and Steve Romero, U.S. Forest Service district ranger for the Pecos/Las Vegas District.  
After the panel discussion, there will be a public discussion.
“It’s not if, but when, we get a large wildfire in the Gallinas canyon, and we anticipate it could be catastrophic,” Romero said. “The question is, ‘How prepared are we for a big fire and it’s aftermath?’ The Gallinas is a very high priority for the forest service because it supplies water to Las Vegas. A major wildfire here would mean all hands on deck for suppression.”
Conley has expertise in watershed restoration. Last spring, his Highlands University surface hydrology class took measurements of the Gallinas to gauge its morphology, or shape.
“The biggest issue now with the Gallinas is that the river has been straightened somewhat by building and other land uses like agriculture over the past 100 years or so,” Conley said. “When a river loses its natural meander, it’s less able to dissipate water flow during a flood. Instead, the water flow accelerates, and the river carries much larger debris, like boulders, and more sediment. There are ways to restore natural meanders to a river, making the river channel more resilient to a flood.”
In 2011, Egan took a lead role in developing the Gallinas Partnership, which works to improve the health and safety of the Gallinas watershed through a comprehensive watershed plan and hazardous fuel reduction strategy. A major goal is to secure a more certain and sustainable water supply to the City of Las Vegas and surrounding areas.
“After a large-scale fire in the Gallinas, flooding during the monsoon season is a critical concern for the water supply and quality,” Egan said.
The Gallinas Partnership includes the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute, City of Las Vegas, San Miguel County, state and federal forest service, private landowners, and other stakeholders.
“The partnership evolved from a grassroots effort and is going strong,” Egan said. “There are four working groups: preparation/emergency response, on-the-ground practices, education/outreach, and economic development.