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Our Watershed - Natural processes and the human impact

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Editor’s note: This is the second in a series running over several consecutive Fridays. It is written by members of the Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance, which seeks to foster land stewardship in the Gallinas, Sapello and Tecolote watersheds.

The atmosphere and climate play a huge role in our water supply, but typically we cannot control the rain. The land is also critical and it is within our power to influence. We are the stewards of the land, our actions can support the land so it can provide us with the things we need.

Our definition of “the land” includes the inorganic — rocks, soil, water, and the organic — microorganisms, fungi, plants, animals and humans. The land is shaped by physical forces involving climate, weather and disturbance (wind, fire, floods) and all the cycles involving each element of the land (the water cycle, nutrient cycle, and plant and animal cycles).
These processes shape the land, keeping it diverse, healthy, productive and resilient.

Natural wildfires regularly occur, producing a mosaic of forests and meadows. This mosaic is ever shifting, creating a diverse, uneven pattern of meadows, young forests, mature and old forests. Remnants of old plant communities intermingle with the rejuvenated. Fires at varying times, intensities and locations result in a multitude of plant and animal communities. This variety gives the lands’ plants, creatures, and systems a larger chance at adapting to changing conditions.

Floods are another example of how natural processes contribute to resilient lands. Spring runoff, storm events and consequent small and large floods are natural and essential processes. These floods bathe the floodplain with a flush of nutrients, sediment and water that enrich soils and store vast quantities of water in soils and aquifers.

The flood-prone area of low-lying land next to a river is called a floodplain. They help spread out the water from a flood event, slowing it and dispersing its energy so it doesn’t cause erosion. Plants growing directly next to the river and in the floodplain are specially adapted to withstand and quickly rebound after a flood.

The Gallinas River used to meander through valley bottoms helping to dissipate the energy of floods while creating a wide valley of rich soils with lush plant growth. Riparian areas of cottonwood bosques, willow and water plants protect the river like a long sleeve shirt protects a farmer from the elements.

Riparian plants anchor soils, slowing erosion and limiting the amount of sediment that is washed downstream. They help water infiltrate the soil to be stored in streambanks and floodplains. Riparian vegetation cleans and cools water before it enters the river. Abundant plant cover is the ecosystem’s fuel.

Rich valley bottoms and diverse upland areas support fish, wildlife, and invertebrate communities, which in turn aide reproduction, growth and decomposition of plants. This is the cycle of life in the watershed.

Abundant fish are supported by deep pools, logs in the stream and rich invertebrate populations. Elk graze in meadows while deer browse on diverse shrubs, their populations and concentrations in any one area held in check by predators. Beavers create wetlands that help slow and store water in floodplains and encourage diverse biology. Birds and rodents spread seeds, revegetating burned areas with a new plant community. Insects feed numerous other organisms while aiding pollination and decomposition of plants.

Plant and animal communities in uplands and lowlands change in age, type and structure in a dynamic manner that creates many microcosms across the landscape. This diversity supports the land’s ability to adapt to varying conditions like climate change or human disturbance.

Birth and death, aggradation and degradation, development and destruction, are all forces of our watershed puzzle. These and other processes can occur on their own in perpetuity and free of charge if they are kept intact.

As an example, a healthy, well-functioning river system, with its meanders, rich riparian area, floodplain and associated wetlands, has the capacity to buffer the highs of flood events and the lows of droughts, providing us with a more consistent supply of clean water.

In landscapes changed by humans, these natural processes and cycles still occur but often in altered ways as a result of our activities. Human land uses often attempt to control the very natural processes that are essential to its maintenance. Because of this, some processes ultimately become exaggerated, like the severe wildfires and floods we’ve recently experienced.

Allowing all these natural processes to occur uninterrupted is ideal but not often possible in our current world. However, to the extent they can serve as a model for us to emulate a system that has worked well for millions of years, will demonstrate our own intelligence and allow us to work together with “the land” for our mutual benefit.

People, and our ability to intelligently adapt, have been a key part of our watershed for thousands of years.

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The Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance will host a spring clean up and has tree planting, land management and river restoration workshops to help repair our Watershed to a healthier condition.

Next week: The Gallinas community, including its way of life, cultures and traditions, will play an important role in shaping the land in our watershed.

The Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance may be reached by visiting its website at hermitspeakwatersheds.org or by calling 505-425-5514.