Photo Credit: In 2014, The Nature Conservancy launched the Rio Grande Water Fund to create more drought- and fire-resilient forests in north-central New Mexico. Photo by Alan Eckert

The Fire that Called Us to Action

In 2011, the Las Conchas Fire burned 156,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. At the time, it was the largest forest fire in New Mexico history. We are used to fire in New Mexico, but the Las Conchas stunned fire managers and scientists with its speed and ferocity, leaving severely burned patches up to 40,000 acres in size. My husband and I could see walls of flame rising hundreds of feet into the air from our home in Santa Fe, 30 miles as the crow flies from the fire. This was a far cry from the frequent, low to moderate intensity fires that typified ponderosa pine forests before fire suppression.

In the Southwest, the early summer fire season is followed by monsoon rains. The huge landscape denuded by the Las Conchas Fire right before the thunderstorms began created havoc. Flooding, and ash and debris flows, nearly dammed the Rio Grande, dumped 50 years’ worth of sediment into a major reservoir, shut down river water withdrawals for Albuquerque, and threatened communities like the Pueblo of Santa Clara, which remain threatened today. (Here’s a video of the Las Conchas post-fire flooding). We saw that, without action, risks to surface waters would continue to grow given the expected warming, drying and consequent large fire potential in the Southwest.

Burned trees surrounding a former stream

The Los Conchas burn area. Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via Flickr Creative Commons

The Santa Fe Water Fund Pilot

For over a decade, our Conservancy colleagues in Latin America have been using financing mechanisms called “water funds” to maintain sustainable water supplies for major cities. The idea is that water users — municipalities, major businesses, agriculture — contribute money to restore or maintain watershed conditions to protect the water source. Impacts of an earlier Jemez Mountains fire, the Cerro Grande Fire of 2000, got the attention of water utility managers across the Rio Grande Valley. They realized that their city reservoirs were at risk from post-fire debris flows. In 2009, the Conservancy, the City of Santa Fe, the Santa Fe National Forest and the Santa Fe Watershed Association completed a 20-year watershed management plan and a pilot water fund. To help city councilors approve the plan, the Conservancy hired a national polling firm to conduct a “willingness to pay” poll. Results showed that residents were willing to pay up to $2.00 a month extra on their water bill to protect the 17,000-acre watershed. Today, the city provides a 1:1 match to Forest Service funds to conduct fuel treatments in the municipal watershed.

The Rio Grande Water Fund

After Las Conchas, we realized that, although the Santa Fe pilot was a success, we needed to think bigger given the current scale of wildfires. In 2014, the Conservancy launched the Rio Grande Water Fund (RGWF), to create more drought- and fire-resilient forests in north-central New Mexico over 20 years. To date, nearly $15 million have been invested, and treatments have increased three-fold.

The 7-million-acre RGWF area is huge, so we have identified focal areas where we have developed collaborative resilience strategies at the 100,000-acre scale. To date, partner groups are working on strategies in Taos, Santa Fe, the East Mountains above Albuquerque and Pagosa Springs, Colorado. This last location is in the drainage for the San Juan River, but two key watersheds south of Pagosa Springs support a water diversion to the Rio Grande that provides a substantial portion of the surface water used by nearly a million people in New Mexico. Through the RGWF, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority is now funding treatments in these watersheds — 200 miles away from their water customers!

Map of the Rio Grande Water Fund landscape, which stretches from Chama to south of Belen

Map of the Rio Grande Water Fund landscape. Note the multiple jurisdictions. Credit: The Nature Conservancy

A Big Project Area Means Diverse Partners

It has been gratifying to discover how much support the RGWF has from many sectors. People understand that water supports life and livelihoods, and talking about water helps us communicate how important healthy forests are. As of this writing, we have 58 signatory organizations to the RGWF charter. They include businesses, local government, water utilities, federal and state agencies, agricultural interests, the timber industry, conservation groups and even a major health care provider, since exposure to nature plays an important role in healing and good mental health. The work of the RGWF benefits and engages natural resource-dependent rural communities as well as those living in the largest metro area in the state.

The Role of FAC

Community wildfire adaptation principles are critical to the success of the RGWF. RGWF landscape strategies link community safety, economic benefits and ecological functions of forests, including fire, with secure water supplies. Community members care about all of these values, and we think it is important to show how the puzzle pieces fit together, and how individual homeowner actions can contribute to something greater. Fire Adapted New Mexico, led by the Forest Stewards Guild, is an important partner in our water fund efforts and has been key in discussions with homeowners and local government.

Learn More

You can learn more about the RGWF, including reviewing its Comprehensive Plan, projects and scientific studies, online.

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