In New Mexico, Partners Collaborate to End Siege from Megafires
Initiative in the Rio Grande basin intends to thwart catastrophic wildfires that wreck watersheds.
By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue – October 12, 2022
Photographs by Pablo Unzueta
EL RITO, New Mexico – The drying American West needs all the high-quality water it can get. It also needs adequate funds to protect its forests, the wellsprings of the region’s rivers.
But massively destructive, high-intensity megafires that now burn millions of acres and inundate the West’s rivers with ash and debris are punishing the beneficial relationship between forests and watersheds.
Here in the mountains surrounding this tiny community in northern New Mexico’s Rio Grande basin, fresh approaches to water management, fire, forest health, and project funding have converged to present an effective solution.
One of the West’s iconic waterways, the Rio Grande stretches nearly 1,900 miles from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. But the river stopped flowing for five miles through Albuquerque in July, the first time it ran dry in that reach in four decades.
Forest health is part of the reason, experts say. National forests are only 19 percent of the region’s land area but they supply 46 percent of its surface water while also filtering pollutants. Federal and state foresters now recognize what Indigenous land managers have long known: that forests in the Southwest — stands of ponderosa pine, white pine, Douglas fir — need low-intensity fire to rejuvenate. Several generations of fire suppression, together with a warming climate, have instead produced the conditions for catastrophic combustion that harms water supply.
In January, the U.S. Forest Service acknowledged its past mistakes and charted a new course for correcting the dire circumstances its forebears helped create. The agency issued a new wildfire strategy that aims to accelerate and expand the area for “prescribed burning” at four times the current rate. That means deliberately setting managed fires on an additional 20 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land over the next 10 years. The strategy anticipates treatments on another 30 million acres of other federal, state, tribal, and private lands. Central to this work is managing the “fireshed” — forest and rangeland units of roughly 250,000 acres that, if wildfire erupted, could damage homes, watersheds, water supplies, utility lines, and other critical infrastructure.
The U.S. Forest Service will soon have more resources to pay for the work. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, signed last November, provided $3.5 billion for programs to prepare communities for wildfire and to reduce surplus trees, brush, and understory. The Inflation Reduction Act, signed in August, added $1.8 billion more.
It’s an important step by Congress and the Biden administration to correct a century of wrongs in forest fire management. But it’s still not enough to pay sufficient numbers of workers needed to manage millions of acres of the West’s perilously dry forests. The government needs partners.
That’s the entry point for an ambitious eight-year-old forest restoration initiative called the Rio Grande Water Fund. Inspired by the principles of collaborative resource management and catalyzed by a wildfire in 2011 that shut down Albuquerque’s use of the Rio Grande for drinking water for more than two months, the Rio Grande Water Fund channels public and private dollars into forest restoration projects in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico that reduce the risk of catastrophic fires in the state’s largest and most essential watershed.
Those risk-reduction principles were on display this summer on a hot, windy day in Carson National Forest, just north of El Rito.
The high-severity Midnight fire, ignited by lightning on June 9, was sprinting through stands of handsome but tightly packed ponderosa pine in a mountainous area an hour north of Santa Fe. The weather that afternoon was “nightmarish,” Mary Steuver recalled: a blustery red flag day with single-digit humidity — the sort of hair dryer conditions that set a forester’s nerves on edge. Moderating rains from the Southwest monsoon, which sweeps through the region in July and August, had yet to arrive. New Mexico was coming off its sixth driest spring in the last 128 years. The forest, overgrown and dehydrated, was primed to burn.
Cheerful and forthright, Stuever is the Chama District Ranger for the New Mexico Forestry Division. Fresh on her mind was the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire, which had ignited two months earlier but was still smoldering in Santa Fe National Forest, east of Santa Fe. Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon ended up burning 341,314 acres, in the process becoming the largest fire in state history. Monsoon rains then added to the misery, flushing ash and debris from burn scars into the Gallinas River watershed, wrecking the water filtration system for the city of Las Vegas, where residents have spent months using bottled water. Mayor Louie Trujillo told the New York Times that building a new system, if it comes to that, would cost $100 million.
Stuever and colleagues from local, state, and federal agencies worried that the Midnight fire had the potential to do similar damage in Carson National Forest. “I didn’t believe we’d get it under control,” she said while standing at the edge of the fire line on a bluebird day in September.
And yet, despite the adverse weather, the Midnight fire was corralled by the end of June, and less than 5,000 acres had burned. This result was not just a stroke of luck. Fire crews were able to wrangle the Midnight fire because of foresight and planning. Prescribed fires and a carefully managed natural fire in recent years helped to halt the Midnight fire before it could morph into a land-wrecking colossus.
The landscape, in other words, was prepared. The Midnight fire burned in a northeasterly direction, right into the path of an earlier lightning ignition, the Francisquito fire. The U.S. Forest Service had allowed it to burn in 2019 because conditions at the time were favorable for letting fire do what fire naturally does in ponderosa forests: clear out surplus trees and allow the forest to rejuvenate. The U.S. Forest Service, in turn, let the Francisquito fire burn because it bordered an area where crews had purposefully used prescribed burns enabled by the Rio Grande Water Fund in 2018.
In effect, nature and human intervention combined to reduce the fuel load that would have fed a massive fire. Brent Davidson, the deputy fire staff officer for Carson National Forest affirmed the benefits. “Without the stacked burns in front of the Midnight fire, it would have been a much larger fire,” he said.
Twin Crises of Fire and Water
The outcome validated the objectives of the Rio Grande Water Fund, a Nature Conservancy project that bundles money from governments, businesses, and utilities and directs it to forest restoration in the headwaters of the Rio Grande and San Juan-Chama basins. Collectively those rivers provide drinking water to a million people in the state and support endangered species like the silvery minnow.
Though it is neither the largest nor first of its kind, what distinguishes the Rio Grande Water Fund is the breadth of its partnerships — from pueblos and federal agencies to private landowners, soil districts, and city water utilities. At a time of deep drought, increasing aridity, and severe disruptions to water supply in the American West, 100 organizations in New Mexico have pledged support for the fund.
From its launch in 2014 through 2021, the Rio Grande Water Fund has shepherded $52.8 million in public funding, not only from the U.S. Forest Service, but also from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, and other agencies. It has combined that with $5.2 million in private dollars. Those funds have supported thinning and prescribed burns on 148,905 acres in the watershed.
“It is the seminal water fund in the sense of having the public-private partnership at scale,” said Cal Joyner, who was the head of the U.S. Forest Service’s southwestern region from 2013 to 2020 and served on the fund’s executive committee.
By thinning and burning dense stands of ponderosa pine and mixed conifer and restoring the water-storage capacity of floodplains, the goal of the collaborative venture is to reduce fire risk on 600,000 acres of forest over 20 years.
“What is the water fund?” said Matt Piccarello, who now manages the project for The Nature Conservancy. “In one way it’s downstream users paying for the upstream treatments because that’s where the faucet is.”
Other projects also link downstream water users with upstream watershed protection. In California, the Placer County Water Agency and Yuba Water Agency have embarked on similar projects. Denver has been active in the U.S. Forest Service’s Forests to Faucets program after the Hayman fire, in 2002, loaded a reservoir with debris. Flagstaff voters, in 2012, approved a $10 million bond for 10,000 acres of forest restoration work across two watersheds that supply the city. That work is part of the larger Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which is targeting 1.2 million acres for restoration work in northern Arizona watersheds.
An Idea Is Planted
Thanks to his U.S. Forest Service role, Joyner had a front-row seat to watch the Rio Grande Water Fund develop. The fund’s architect is Laura McCarthy, a former wildland firefighter who is director of the New Mexico Forestry Division. At the time she started the fund McCarthy worked on government relations for The Nature Conservancy out of its Santa Fe office.
McCarthy drew her inspiration from Conservancy’s work abroad. She read an article in the organization’s magazine about an ambitious conservation finance model in Ecuador. Established in 2000, the Fund for the Protection of Water aimed to protect the high-altitude watersheds that supply 2.6 million people in Quito with drinking water.
FONAG, as it is known in Spanish, was also distinguished by the diversity of its partners and its watershed approach. As non-governmental organizations, the Nature Conservancy and the Antisana Foundation were cornerstones of the project. So were the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the U.S. Agency for International Development. They were joined by local utilities — the Quito Electrical Company and the Municipal Drinking Water and Sewerage Company of Quito — that raised money from user fees. The basic idea was watershed unity. Since water flows downstream, money to protect it should move the opposite direction.
Though it took several years to build capital before it could initiate projects, FONAG has evolved into an influential financial model for conservation and restoration of water-producing wetlands, forests, and grasslands at risk of degradation from urban growth, grazing, and fire.
McCarthy recognized a model that could be transplanted to the Southwest. Santa Fe, she thought, would be an ideal test bed. The municipal watershed was relatively small and contained mostly lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Plus, the city owned the water utility and it already had an environmental impact statement in place for forest thinning.
In 2011, the first year of a four-year contract, Santa Fe spent $700,000 in a fifty-fifty cost share with the U.S. Forest Service for restoration work in the Santa Fe watershed. Proof of concept in hand, McCarthy knew she had a winning idea. The contract has been renewed ever since.
“It’s been a hugely successful project,” said Alan Hook, Santa Fe’s water resources coordinator and manager of the municipal watershed program. He added: “It’s the fire-water relationship in the Southwest. With low-intensity fire you are getting a healthier forest and better water quality.”
But a piecemeal approach targeting small watersheds would not remedy a statewide forest crisis. The window had to widen. “The problems that we’re solving today you have to have a systems approach or you’re not going to solve anything,” McCarthy said. “You’re just going to whack down one mole only for another one to pop up.”
The Rio Grande watershed was an obvious choice for expansion. Cleaving the state lengthwise, the river and its tributaries provide drinking water to half of New Mexico’s people, including residents of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Big, high-intensity fires in the watershed produce smoke, spew carbon emission, destroy houses, and take lives. They also fundamentally change how the watershed functions.
Academic work confirms McCarthy’s concerns. A group of notable researchers in climate, hydrology, and forest ecology recently investigated the consequences of large-scale wildfires in the western United States. Published in February, the study measured changes in river flow in forested basins after big fires. Though the basins they analyzed were mostly small, the results were striking, showing that more fires are “unhinging” post-fire watersheds from their historical behavior.
Water runoff increased by 30 percent in severely burned forests where more than 20 percent of the basin was torched. This was the case for roughly six years after the fire. Why the change? Trees that cycled moisture from ground to air were dead, their biophysical rhythms eliminated. Canopies that used to intercept water were gone. Soils that had absorbed moisture and released it slowly into rivers now repelled it.
From one angle, this outcome could be perceived as a benefit: more water in a parched region means fuller reservoirs. But the drawbacks of a radically altered hydrology are just as prominent, not only for physical assets like roads and drinking water infrastructure but also for ecosystems. As in Las Vegas, New Mexico after the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire, turbid, high-volume runoff laden with debris and sediment has damaged water intakes, clogged reservoirs and road culverts, triggered harmful algal blooms, increased landslide risk, and compromised the water treatment process.
Just look at Carson National Forest: weeks after the Midnight fire, the area was pelted by heavy monsoon rains. Debris plugged culverts and forest roads were washed out. The evidence — uprooted sagebrush and mudflows drying by the roadside — was still present a month later. “This ground wants to move,” Davidson said.
Basic assumptions about how the watershed functions — things like flood risk and bridge design standards — come undone after a big fire. Coupled with an altered climate, the past is no longer a guiding light.
“When the whole watershed goes, that’s when you end up with dramatic, almost overnight hydrological changes,” McCarthy said. “Because you’ve got vast areas that cannot hold water anymore.”
New Mexicans have witnessed such destruction. More than a decade ago, the Las Conchas fire raced across the mountain flanks northwest of Albuquerque. It catalyzed the creation of the Rio Grande Water Fund. Locals also remember it as the time when rivers ran black.
On a warm, Sunday afternoon in early September, the East Fork of the Jemez River is teeming with leisure. On the day before Labor Day, families picnic along grassy streambanks shaded by rock pinnacles. Halfway up the pinnacles, rock climbers test their strength and flexibility.
The scene was much less benign in June 2011. Just over the ridge to the south, the Las Conchas fire ignited on the southwest flanks of Valles Caldera, a remnant volcano that is now a national preserve. The fire burned 156,593 acres, with one-quarter of the damage done in the first 24 hours. At the time, it was the largest wildfire in state history. Now it ranks fourth.
That August the monsoon arrived, uncorking floods on the newly denuded slopes. Black water poured into Cochiti Reservoir and the Rio Grande. Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority shut down its drinking water intake from the river for 64 days, relying instead on groundwater.
The aftermath of Las Conchas, in retrospect, was the push that Laura McCarthy needed for the Rio Grande Water Fund.
“It was the precipitating event for these conversations,” observed Kimery Wiltshire, the executive director of Confluence West, a nonprofit that works to solve complex environmental challenges in the western states. The organization held a convening in 2014 that brought together many of the water fund’s initial partners.
Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority provides $200,000 dollars a year to the water fund. The authority’s board recently signed an agreement to commit to that funding level for the next decade.
The water utility’s funds are earmarked for forest restoration work in the headwaters of the San Juan River, a watershed in southern Colorado from which there is a diversion to the Rio Grande. Before that diversion Albuquerque relied on a shrinking aquifer for its water supply. Now it has a surface water source that it wants to protect.
“There’s needs all up and down the river, but we’ve chosen to prioritize those areas, because that’s where all our surface water comes from,” said Mark Kelly, the utility’s water resources division manager. “It’s really important that we be able to use this surface water treatment plant. It’s bad enough that we have climate change altering how much we can use it. If we can prevent fires and have the healthiest watershed up there, then that’s what we want to do, too.”
Beyond dollars, acres, and signatories, environmental outcomes from the fund’s projects are meticulously tracked. Fuel loads are monitored, along with changes in water quality. Aerial photos before and after a fire show where crown fires dropped to the ground, becoming less severe. The Nature Conservancy is in the process of compiling these data into an assessment report.
But even with successes there are challenges.
The U.S. Forest Service has never been completely trusted in the region, especially among Hispanic and native groups who chafe at restrictive policies that can hinder their traditional use of forests for collecting wood for home heating, construction, and fence building. Smoke from prescribed burns can also irritate a public that is not adequately prepared for them.
Luis Torres, who has worked in forests in northern New Mexico for more than 50 years, said that the agency needs to improve its community outreach. Ernie Atencio, who planned projects for the Rio Grande Water Fund in 2015-16, said that conservation organizations need to continue their shift away from transactional relationships with local groups and move toward “true reciprocal collaboration” that goes beyond a single project.
Terrible missteps by the U.S. Forest Service this spring may have widened the rift. The Hermits Peak fire was sparked by an agency prescribed burn in April that grew out of control. Randy Moore, the U.S. Forest Service chief, paused prescribed burns in national forests nationwide while reviewing the incident. Agency guidance released in September allows prescribed burns to resume, but under stricter regulation.
Even seemingly insignificant bureaucratic details can be a hurdle when incorporating agencies from multiple levels of government. Simple things like mismatched fiscal years. New Mexico turns the page on its accounting calendar on July 1 each year. The federal government does so three months later, on October 1. The misalignment means that federal agencies are closing out their projects while state agencies are ramping up. There is the risk that work stops in the interim and contractors leave for other work.
Private funds, in this case, provide a source of much needed flexibility to bridge the calendars and keep workers on the job. It’s “plug the gap money,” McCarthy said.
Other schedules are out of whack, too. October is typically prime time for prescribed fire work in New Mexico. Temperatures have started to drop, and the monsoon has just ended, moistening the landscape. That month also happens to be prime firefighting season in the rest of the West. The result: the U.S. Forest Service often does not have the budget or the workers to do both. Firefighting takes priority.
The Rio Grande Water Fund uses its relationships to fill that gap. The All Hands All Lands team, which assisted with the prescribed burn in Carson National Forest that calmed the Midnight fire, is a project of the Forest Stewards Guild, which is financially supported by the Rio Grande Water Fund. An agreement facilitated by The Nature Conservancy also allows the All Hands All Lands team to work with the U.S. Forest Service on prescribed burns.
“It’s become apparent it’s necessary to work on a landscape scale,” said Esmé Cadiente, the Southwest regional director for the Forest Stewards Guild. “The partners share the same objective. With the mechanisms now in place it’s easier to collaborate.”
Building a coalition is one task. Maintaining it is another. McCarthy said her approach followed a simple mantra: “don’t be boring.” In meetings she would use a timer or cut people off if the pace lagged. Presenters were told to bring slides and McCarthy would proof them beforehand. “I think the water fund came to be known as a place to show up, because you are going to benefit from it personally,” she said. “You are going to learn stuff, you are going to meet interesting people, and you are going to get to advance your own work.”
The pandemic has been hard, said McCarthy, who also serves on the water fund’s executive committee, which is in charge of selecting projects for funding. “You can’t sustain that kind of energy without having some face-to-face time.”
Coalition maintenance and growth is now the task of Matt Piccarello, who took on the role at The Nature Conservancy in May. Piccarello came to the position from the Forest Stewards Guild, where he was the Southwest regional director and worked with many of the water fund partners.
Piccarello said the fund has reached a point where the partners have a sense of each other’s capabilities. They are more comfortable asking for assistance. When the U.S. Forest Service calls us, he said, “That’s success.”
The Rio Grande Water Fund is just one network in an assemblage of land management partnerships within the waters and forests of New Mexico and its greater watersheds. There are U.S. Forest Service restoration programs in the Rio Chama and Jemez River watersheds, as well as the 2-3-2 Partnership, which extends into the forests of Colorado. Local forest councils are part of the mix, too.
It’s all part of an American West that is evolving in response to imposing environmental change. Politicians like to promote dams, canals, and machinery to remove salt from sea water as solutions to the region’s water problems. Those may have their place. But just as important is the social infrastructure that builds relationships. The Rio Grande Water Fund channels dollars to forest restoration. It also connects people.
In Cal Joyner’s mind, that lesson ought to be broadcast to the region’s water and land managers. As with the wildfire crisis, problems like the shrinking Colorado River cannot be managed from spheres of isolation.
“You’re starting to link together the cities,” he said, “the farmers, the ranchers, everybody’s coming together, saying, ‘If we collectively work on this, none of us has to suffer too much. If we don’t collectively work on it, we’re all going to suffer some and some people are really going to be flat out of luck.’”
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton