New Mexico: Using Fire to Protect Water

We are using fire to prevent “mega fires” that can severely damage forests and our water supplies.

Using Fire to Protect Water

See how prescribed fires can protect our water supply.


A decade ago, the Cerro Grande Fire—near Los Alamos, New Mexico—served as a wake-up call for much of the West. The fire burned for two weeks sustained on 100 years of built-up fuel leaving behind a wasteland of destroyed homes, dead trees and ash.

After the blaze was contained and the charred earth began to cool, another disaster was set in motion. The damage from the fire was so intense that the deeply rooted trees could not hold the soil. Debris and ash poured down the mountains clogging streams, rivers and lakes—wreaking havoc on the Los Alamos water supply causing over $9 million in damage.

Over the past decade this scene has become too familiar. Once rare "mega fires" like Cerro Grande have become a common occurrence. They reflect the poor health of our forests and give us great concern about the security of our water supplies.

Only You (The City of Santa Fe) Can Prevent Forest Fires

Laura McCarthy, director of government relations for the Conservancy in New Mexico, was determined to prevent another Los Alamos situation in the Santa Fe River Watershed where she lives with her family. Much of the city’s water supply is surrounded by the Santa Fe National Forest and two main reservoirs could be rendered useless if a catastrophic fire swept through the area.

City and forest officials, assisted by Congress, rallied around a 4-year, $7 million project to avoid this worst case scenario by cutting and removing many of the overgrown trees near the reservoirs, but Laura saw the need for a long term and sustainable approach to protect the city’s drinking water.

Working with Santa Fe’s City Council, Laura and the Conservancy helped put together a "water fund" that will use a small amount of money from the community’s water users to pay for continuing restoration efforts in the watershed. 

“Over the next 20 years we are looking at an estimated $4.3 million to ensure this forest remains healthy,” said Laura. “Compare that with the estimated costs of Cerro Grande-type fire in this watershed of over $20 million and this approach makes of lot financial sense.”

The success the Santa Fe Water Fund has been noticed by larger municipalities and cities like Denver are using this framework as way to protect their water supplies.
Trial by Fire

This summer, the Conservancy teamed up with the Santa Fe National Forest to welcome forest experts from Mexico, Chile and Guatemala to New Mexico. The purpose of the trip was to learn about the formulation and application of Santa Fe’s Water Fund as well as hone their on-the-ground fire management skills.

Led by Jeremy Bailey, Fire Learning Network coordinator for the Conservancy’s North America Initiative, the team worked and lived together for two straight weeks. “The combination of classroom learning and hands-on fire training made for long, 16 hour days. But by the end of the trip, language barriers were overcome and we all worked together as a highly functional team that helped implement essential restoration activities.”

One lesson was learned high in a watch tower overlooking a forest recently impacted by fire. The group noticed obvious differences in the severity of the burn. Places that had been treated were in much better shape and already bouncing back. Other areas had burned at a higher intensity due to built-up fuel, making it obvious to the visitors that the devastation would have lasting effects.

Learning Exchange

The group from Latin America will take these lessons back to their home countries and apply them to fire programs and possibly new water funds.

Learning exchanges go both ways. In fact, Laura’s inspiration for Santa Fe Water Fund came from a project in Quito, Ecuador where the local government partnered with the Conservancy to ensure high water quality for over 1.5 million people. 


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