As I bounced along a rutted dirt road on my way to the San Juan River in northwest New Mexico, I was thinking about a conversation from hours earlier.
During a meeting with local Navajo Nation leaders, my hosts described a depressing legacy of environmental degradation on the San Juan River and its surrounding lands, ranging from uranium and coal mining, to oil and gas development, to the construction of Navajo Dam. The images of those impacts weighed heavily on my mind.
When a river is damaged, everything that lives within its path suffers—plants, fish and wildlife, and people, too.
I finally reached my destination and made my way into a dense stand of tamarisk and Russian olive trees. After several minutes fighting through the spiked branches, at last I stepped out onto a cobble-stone bank. As I peered into the opening in front of me, my mind locked onto three simple words: SO… MUCH… WATER!
It’s the sheer volume of water flowing past you that grabs your attention on the San Juan River—almost twice as much as you might see on a typical day on the Rio Grande.
Keeping this water flowing in a way that benefits nature and people is one of our top priorities at The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico. And thanks to your support, we have completed some exciting and important restoration work along the San Juan River with our state, federal and Navajo Nation partners.
Typically, heavy machinery isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of habitat restoration. The San Juan River has faced some big challenges—dam construction, water diversions and nonnative
species—and some of these obstacles take big equipment to fix.
In 2011, we began a major undertaking to restore six key reaches of the San Juan River as it flows through the Navajo Nation.
With support from the State of New Mexico’s River Ecosystem Restoration Initiative, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Conservancy and an environmental restoration firm have completed work on all six sites.
Backhoes and other machinery have restored secondary channels in the river, generating much-needed nursery and spawning habitat for native fish. The machines (and human hands) have also yanked up non-native tamarisks and Russian olives and planted native vegetation.
In all, 3.5 miles of secondary channel and backwater habitat have been restored, something we can take as a sign of hope for this important New Mexico river
The San Juan River once supported 6-foot long, 100-pound Colorado pikeminnows and 5-foot razorback suckers. Then dam construction, water diversions, mining and non-native species arrived, and these behemoths of the San Juan dwindled to a few half-pints.
Colorado pikeminnows and razorback suckers have evolved for millions of years to survive in a desert river that once ebbed and flowed according to its own natural cycles. If we can’t recreate those natural flows and time the Navajo Dam’s releases appropriately, native fish will continue to struggle for existence.
The Conservancy’s expertise is helping assess dam operations to determine if they are recovering the river’s native fish. We also recently completed a Conservation Action Plan for the San Juan River, marking the first time that stakeholders have been convened to develop a basinwide vision and design collaborative strategies for the river.
“You can’t restore the fish without restoring the river,” says Patrick McCarthy, who is leading the Conservancy’s work on the San Juan River. “That’s the premise behind our comprehensive approach to conservation here.”
Our San Juan River project contributes to our Colorado River Program, a collaborative Conservancy effort across the basin to foster sustainable water use and conserve freshwater biodiversity.
As I think back to my conversation with Navajo Nation leaders about the San Juan River’s distressing history, I can’t help but feel hopeful that together we are changing course and creating a brighter future for this important fresh water resource.
The San Juan’s once mighty native fish aren’t the only ones that will benefit from our continued restoration efforts—we will, too.
Making progress will take more years of work but will ultimately pay off—for the many New Mexico, Colorado and Utah residents who get their drinking water and eat locally grown crops from the San Juan River, use the electricity it generates, and spend time fishing or floating this scenic river.
Thanks to your support, our critical restoration work is helping the lives that depend on the San Juan River. Your ongoing commitment gives me great hope, and each and every mile we restore makes a difference.
New Mexico State Director