-Terry Sullivan, New Mexico State Director
Here’s a conversation starter to try with your friends and family sometime: “Do you know where our drinking water comes from?” The answer you’re likely to hear? My guess is: “the faucet.” These days, it seems people are growing more and more disconnected from nature and its resources.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we can reconnect ourselves with the rivers, lakes and aquifers that are nature’s water tanks, pipelines and water filtration systems. We rarely stop and ask ourselves what our lives would be like if our water sources were in jeopardy.
Here in Santa Fe, where I live with my family, the Conservancy is taking a close look at our city’s water supply. Is there enough water for both human and natural communities? Is our water safe to drink, and is it safe for fish, frogs and beavers? Will our water supply be viable in five years? Ten years?
These are the kind of tough questions that can keep someone in my line of work up at night. Fortunately, with the Conservancy’s foundation in science and years of experience, we’ve helped develop an approach to protecting Santa Fe’s water supply, and at the same time provide a healthier habitat for the dozens of plant and animal species that depend on the watershed for survival.
Two reservoirs nestled in the Santa Fe National Forest provide approximately 40 percent of Santa Fe’s water supply. To keep these reservoirs pristine, the Conservancy has spearheaded the creation of a water fund that focuses on keeping the Santa Fe National Forest’s watershed healthy.
What do forests have to do with our drinking water?
The answer lies in what happens to our water supply when large, catastrophic wildfires burn nearby forests. Take the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire that burned in and around Los Alamos. When the flames finally died down, the Los Alamos water utility was forced to pay $17 million to unclog pipes, replace storage tanks, and repair the mountain reservoir.
A Cerro Grande-type catastrophe in the Santa Fe watershed could cost up to $22 million in damages to the city’s water supply. It could alter and destroy habitat for a number of species that call the watershed home. And from a selfish standpoint, it could wipe out the years of restoration work the Conservancy has conducted on our Santa Fe Canyon Preserve.
Compare that $22 million price tag with the estimated $4.3 million that the water fund will invest in the Santa Fe National Forest over the next 20 years to fund projects like prescribed burns and tree thinning.
These efforts will restore critical portions of the forest to more natural, less crowded conditions and create a better habitat for native plants and animals. For the first five years of the program, a state grant will cover costs. After that, municipal water users will take the responsibility to ensure their water is protected. The concept: pay a little now to avoid paying a lot later.
Every year, the forests near Santa Fe face a 20-percent chance of a large fire. By reducing fuel levels throughout the forest, Santa Fe’s Water Fund is working to ensure that when a fire does ignite, the city’s water supply will be much safer.
Last summer, the Conservancy teamed up with the Santa Fe National Forest to welcome forest experts from Mexico, Chile and Guatemala. The purpose of the trip was to learn about Santa Fe’s Water Fund as well as hone on-the-ground fire management skills.
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. The Santa Fe Water Fund’s success has also been noticed by larger municipalities and cities like Denver that are using this framework as way to protect their water supplies.
Water funds are gaining in popularity around the world. In fact, the inspiration for the 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 more than 1.5 million people.
You can take great pride in knowing that your support of our work is cleaning up water for people, plants and animals living in New Mexico—not just today but for many years to come. We all need water, and keeping our valuable water sources healthy makes a difference for families and communities—and the natural places we all care about.
Thank you for your ongoing commitment to our important conservation efforts in New Mexico. We couldn’t do it without you!
New Mexico State Director