A man wearing a backpack wades through clear water in a rocky canyon.
Brazos Sean O'Neill at the mouth of the Rio Grande near Chama, New Mexico. © Sean O'Neill and Kyle Stepp

Stories in New Mexico

Rio Grande Water Fund

Protecting forests and water in northern New Mexico.

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Help us to protect clean water sources in New Mexico.

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New Mexico’s Rio Grande and its tributaries supply water for wildlife and one million people. The health of these waterways is key to the health of Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Native American Pueblos and other communities—half of New Mexico’s population—and an essential ingredient for our state’s economic growth.

The Rio Grande Water Fund protects forests and boosts local economies by creating jobs and wood for products. The project is also generating a sustainable source of funding for a 20-year program to restore 600,000 acres of forests in northern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado.

More than 100 signatories and executive committee are the foundation of the Rio Grande Water Fund. A coordinated, leveraged, public-private effort is needed to scale up restoration of New Mexico’s forests. Partners in the Rio Grande Water Fund sign a collaborative charter expressing their support for the goal of restoring 600,000 acres of critical forests and headwaters of the Rio Grande.

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2022 Rio Grande Water Fund Annual Report

  • Firefighter stands in front of prescribed burn in forest.

    Wildfire & Water Source Protection

    Since its launch in 2014, the Rio Grande Water Fund has impacted 251,000 acres of forest with restoration activities. Read the Fund’s 2022 annual report to learn more about our progress. Read More


A group of men in yellow burn suits listen to instructions.
All Hands All Lands Through cooperative and coordinated burning we are able to burn more acres with prescribed fire due to safe staffing levels. Here the All Hands All Lands Burn Team organizes representatives from 12 different organizations. © Collin Haffey

All Hands All Lands

Forest ecology and fire science tell us that our dry-conifer forests need fire. Not the dangerous, unhealthy fire like the catastrophic fire we experienced in 2020 across the drought-stricken West, but the mild, healthy fires that our forests have evolved with. Fires that burn under controlled conditions improve wildlife habitat, create healthy forests and reduce the risk of catastrophic fires. This kind of fire is often referred to as “good fire.”

There’s just one problem: not enough trained people to manage more “good fire.” Many of the federal fire-fighting workers that we depend on here are off battling fire in other parts of the county at times when the threat of catastrophic fire has decreased in New Mexico and conditions are right for effective controlled burns. This is where the All Hands All Lands Team (AHAL) comes in.

AHAL is working to place controlled burns in prioritized locations that allow for more healthy fires in future years. According to Dave Lasky, the Forest Stewards Guild leader who manages the AHAL Burn Team: “The goal of the AHAL is to get ahead of prescribed fire backlogs on federal, state and tribal lands and support private landowner’s use of prescribed fire.”

Infographic of how the Rio Grande Water Fund works.
Rio Grande Water Fund Restoring essential forested lands upstream will ensure a continuous supply of clean water downstream. © TNC

Job Growth & Local Economy

TNC, the Social and Economic Analysis Branch of the USGS Fort Collins Science Center and the USGS Sustaining Environmental Capital Initiative funded a study on the economic impacts of wildfire risk reduction and watershed improvement projects in the Rio Grande basin. 

What did we learn? During the year of the study, nearly $900,000 was deployed to contractors supporting 25 jobs, $977,000 in labor income and $1.7 million in economic output. The majority of these expenditures were made by hiring local businesses operating within the Rio Grande Water Fund boundary.

These results demonstrate how investments in wildfire risk reduction and watershed improvement projects support jobs and livelihoods, small businesses and rural economies in New Mexico and southern Colorado.*
* From the Executive Summary of the Economic Impacts of Wildfire Risk Reduction and Watershed Improvement Projects in the Rio Grande Basin by Christopher Huber, Catherin Cullinane Thomas, James R. Meldrum, Rachel Meier and Steven Bassett.  

Securing Our Water (0:33) Water is a precious resource. The Rio Grande Water Fund is improving the health of forests to protect the Rio Grande and its tributaries from dry, overcrowded forests that are vulnerable to devastating fires.


Cattlemen Collaborate for San Antonio Creek

Partnerships are vital to the success of the Rio Grande Water Fund. In 2020, we entered into a unique collaboration involving multiple organizations working towards improving the health of San Antonio Creek in the Jemez Mountains. The project partners include: Trout Unlimited, National Forest Foundation, the Pueblo of Jemez, New Mexico Trout, the Santa Fe National Forest, Rio Grande Return and the San Diego Cattlemen's Association.

This project restores the eroded stream channel using natural channel designs that reconnect the stream with the historic floodplain. Using a process that mimics nature, the project will create more wetlands and store more water in our headwaters. The project also aims to protect wetland species like the endangered New Mexico jumping mouse by removing cattle from sensitive riparian, or streamside, areas.

Working with the San Diego Cattlemen's Association, Trout Unlimited will install water sources for large ungulates further away from the stream and wetland area. The Cattlemen's Association supports the project saying:

Quote: Cattlemen's Association

Opening up a source of water for cattle and wildlife in the uplands will greatly help us in our efforts to protect the riparian areas of San Antonio Creek.

The Rio Grande Water Fund is providing funds to install drinking water wells for the cattle. Other groups, including the Cattleman's Association, are providing in-kind contributions to support the work and improve water quality and stream habitat. Together, we will learn from this effort and hope to develop more projects like this, paving the way to future, impactful collaborations via win-win problem-solving.

Supporting Local Economies (0:30) The Rio Grande Water Fund protects forests and water for one million people in New Mexico and boosts local economies by creating jobs, supporting tourism, and generating wood for timber companies.


Gloved hands hold an open pinecone in a snowy background.
Seed Collecting An open pinecone during a seed collecting effort in the Bandelier National Monument in November of 2019. © Sallie Hoefer/TNC

Reforesting the Jemez Mountains

Imagine your favorite forested area without big, beautiful pine trees cooling you from the sun or providing fresh air during your hike. That’s what we’re facing across the Jemez Mountains, which were scorched by the Las Conchas Fire in 2011. The flames burned so hot that the seed sources were destroyed. That, combined with drought and warmer temperatures, could mean serious issues for our water, recreation industry and the animals who call the forest their home.

“Since 2014 we have collectively thinned 140,000 acres to prevent catastrophic wildfires,” says Susan Millsap, TNC’s conservation programs director in New Mexico. “Now, we’re thinning in tandem with planting to create forests that capture carbon, protect our water and create wildlife habitat.”

To enhance the Rio Grande Water Fund, TNC launched a reforestation effort to create "tree-islands" in the burned areas of the Jemez Mountains. These tree islands will serve as the seed sources for the future.

Quote: J. Michael Chavarria

We especially support this project due to the restoration effects it will have on one of the Pueblo's traditional cultural properties, and we look forward to playing a role in these endeavors.

Governor, Santa Clara Pueblo

A new online app in development can teach people how to collect the right kind of seeds from the right landscapes. Collected seeds will be delivered to Dr. Owen Burney, superintendent of the John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center, who will ensure new trees are grown in a way that makes them resilient to warmer, drier weather.

Watch an event with Dr. Burney discussing the challenges of reforestation efforts, from seed harvesting and selection to planting in the wild, or read our Q&A with Dr. Burney.


Rio Grande Water Fund Signatories

Signatories of the Rio Grande Water Fund sign a collaborative charter expressing their support for the goal of restoring 600,000 acres of critical forests that supply water to one million people in New Mexico. We welcome new charter signatories at any time. Review the RGWF charter and by-laws  and contact Melissa McLamb to learn more about becoming a signatory.

Graphic collage of 100+ logos--all signatories for the Rio Grande Water Fund.
Rio Grande Water Fund Signatories Showing support for the goal of restoring 600,000 acres of critical forests that supply water to one million people in New Mexico.


New Mexico Year in Review 2022

From renewing freshwater to engaging with Indigenous partners, we've been busy in 2022! Read the highlights in our annual report.

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