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Our Watershed: Our livelihood depends on a common vision

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Editor’s note: This is the seventh 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.

A common vision for our Gallinas Watershed can allow us to balance potentially competing uses like the city of Las Vegas water supply, agricultural uses, timber, grazing, vacation homes, recreational use and the natural ecosystem.

Let’s build that vision, as a community, knowing that our mutual livelihood depends on it. A number of local residents were asked about their thoughts to help begin the process. Here are a few of them.

“The river and watershed ultimately provide the capability for people to live in Las Vegas and the surrounding area,” says Joe Zebrowski, president of El Creston Mutual Domestic Water Consumers’ Association

Andrew Egan, of the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute, and Keith Tucker, president of Community 1st Bank, add that “vision starts with clarifying where our water comes from so we understand our connection to the watershed.”

A clearly articulated vision can help us picture common goals that give us something productive to work toward and avoid distracting us with endless debates.

A healthy watershed, like a healthy community, has all its parts intact, working together in a balanced and interdependent way. In a watershed the landscape, soil, water, natural disturbances, plants, animals and people, all work together to maintain equilibrium and benefit each part. A healthy watershed supports diversity. Diversity provides resilience.

Ultimately, our vision needs to be comprehensive, holistic and multifaceted, guiding all parts of our watershed, working together in concert. We should each see ourselves in this vision.

Our long term goal is to ensure a healthy watershed that provides for the vitality of our community, both the natural and human parts. For that to happen we must restore the functional health of our rivers, their riparian areas and floodplains, wetlands, forests, meadows, grasslands, shrublands, rural and urban areas and keep them healthy.

The vision’s foundation is, as longtime Gallinas landowner Robert Padilla Sr. stated, “the community works together to do whatever we can to protect our watershed; without its maintenance, our community will phase out.” He continues saying we “need to understand and learn more about our environment” in order to manage impacts on our watershed competently and thrive economically, ecologically and culturally.

Our resulting plan needs to identify concerns that must be addressed. One example is cited by Richard Trujillo, of the State Engineer’s office.

“The problem with our watershed is that we have too many trees per acre,” Trujillo says. This makes our forests ripe for catastrophic wildfire and post-fire flooding “which can have devastating effects on property and property values, tourism, and community well-being,” Egan explains.

Furthermore, “The Gallinas River and many of its tributaries are straightened and entrenched (down cut), meaning that the river no longer has access to its flood plain during flood events. As a result, flood flows, even minor ones, are no longer stored in the streambanks as shallow groundwater, but rush downstream increasing the damage caused by flood events. These flows are lost to the system and to downstream users so floodplains have dried out,” says Bill Zeedyk, of Zeedyk Ecological Consulting.

And practical solutions to those concerns, like “proper thinning of the forested headwaters would reduce the threat of wildfire and catastrophic flooding,” Zeedyk says. “To ameliorate post-fire flooding problems and improve the condition of the river channel, having a healthy, highly-functioning riparian zone with a restored river channel along the entire reach of the Gallinas River would help reduce the impact of such a flood event and provide us with cleaner, more abundant water,” say Steve Reichert and Frances Martinez, of the Tierra y Montes Soil and Water Conservation District.

“The City is cutting down trees so it doesn’t catch fire so easy, but to me that’s like killing the earth even further. The city also restricts how much water we use, which is also making practically every plant die” says Christopher Jones.

This Memorial Middle School student astutely recognizes the critical role plants play and the need to balance healthy plant cover with thinning and water restrictions.

Former city councilman Andrew Feldman notes that “our watershed is too small and our weather patterns seem to be changing… Our watershed may not be able to supply enough water for community needs regardless of its health. We need to reduce our dependence on the Gallinas and find additional sources of water.”

Zebrowski emphasizes that, “There will always be a struggle for compromises that preserve the river and watershed for all the human uses, while protecting it as an ecosystem.”

By taking opportunities to learn how to responsibly use watershed land, each of us can find ways to contribute. We can also look for ways to reduce water use. We can team up with landowners or organizations to help them care for the land. We can support funding and legislation that address watershed health.

“Get involved, practice conservation, make some noise!” Tucker says.

Margaret Lewis’ Memorial Middle School students agree.

“I can take shorter showers and not leave the water running, but I’m just one person, everyone needs to help,” student Danielle Apodaca says. Celebrating the challenge, Daisy Joe says, “Instead of joining in on a water balloon fight, I can dance in the rain.”

We need a lofty vision – one with a grand view, with actionable steps that include us all. We hope this discussion will stimulate the beginning of a community based Comprehensive Gallinas Watershed Health Vision and Plan.

The Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance can act as a conduit. Help us build that vision by sending your ideas and feedback to our Facebook page or website at: hermitspeakwatersheds.org

Next Week: The concluding article — actions.