A drone photo of Chama River
Chama River The Rio Chama between El Vado and Heron reservoirs delivers water to downstream users and provides outdoor recreation opportunities and habitat for fish and wildlife. ©: Christi Bode

Stories in New Mexico

Rio Grande Water Fund: Catching Our Stride

A Year of Explosive Growth

A year of explosive growth! That’s what’s happening with The Nature Conservancy-led Rio Grande Water Fund, designed to protect your water. The numbers in the latest Annual Report show how we’ve hit our stride in just four years, with results including:

  • 1,000-percent increase in acres restored, with 33,000 acres of forest treated in 2018 compated to 3,000 acres per year prior to the launch of the Rio Grande Water Fund
  • 235 estimated forestry jobs
  • $40 million in public funding leveraged

“The success we’re seeing is attributed to partnerships and shared work. No one agency can do it alone. Together, we’re securing New Mexico’s water for the future."

The Nature Conservancy’s Associate State Director

Launched in 2014, the Water Fund is designed to restore 600,000 acres of at-risk forests over 20 years. One of the priorities is the San Juan-Chama headwaters, where much of Albuquerque’s water originates. In winter, snow accumulates in forests near the headwaters, and in spring and summer, snowmelt flows into streams as freshwater. The Rio Grande is a “natural pipeline” delivering water to people.

As part of its recently adopted Water 2120 Plan, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Utility Water Authority is providing $1 million over five years to support forest thinning at the headwaters and in tributaries that supply water to the state’s largest city.

“This is a smart investment”, says Katherine Yuhas, water resources manager for the Water Authority. “We recognize the need to protect our water sources in the face of climate change. If the headwater forests are healthy, our water will be more reliable.”

Wildfire knows no boundaries. Neither does the Rio Grande Water Fund. In addition to working on public land, the project collaborates with private landowners. Working alongside the Chama Peak Land Alliance, for example, 900 acres of private land was restored this year.

Educational outreach programs and activities are also key Water Fund components. At campgrounds along the Rio Hondo, for example, we created interpretative signage with photos of thinned versus overgrown forests to help visitors understand how a healthy watershed is maintained.

“We hope people who camp and hike in the area will learn how this work to protect water and help wildlife, while also boosting our economy, as local contractors are hired and projects supply additional wood for market,” adds McCarthy.

Today, more than 70 organizations have signed the Rio Grande Water Fund Charter, supporting work in five priority areas with more than two dozen on-the-ground thinning projects, and a roving monitoring team that crisscrosses the region, collecting data before and after restoration.