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Rio Grande Water Fund Hits Its Stride for People and Nature

The Nature Conservancy-led Rio Grande Water Fund is securing clean water—today and for future generations. It’s an investment in nature with a triple bottom line: clean water, healthy forests and jobs. You can support this important work now.

When discussing overcrowded forests ripe for catastrophic wildfire in New Mexico, “explosive” isn’t usually a positive term. But that’s exactly what this year has been like for The Nature Conservancy-led Rio Grande Water Fund: chock full of explosive growth!

Forested mountains are nature’s water storage and filtering facilities, but frequent, high-severity wildfires and subsequent flooding threaten our communities, economy and water. So, we launched the Rio Grande Water Fund with partners three years ago to restore and transform 600,000 acres of at-risk forests, secure water for 1 million people, and generate 20 years of sustainable investment.

Annual acres restored had already tripled thanks to our Water Fund efforts last year. In 2017, we have doubled that yet again with 27,000+ forest acres treated! By leveraging our private investments, public funding also nearly tripled—from $9 million to $22 million.

And today 60 organizations have signed the Rio Grande Water Fund Charter, supporting work in five priority areas with more than two dozen on-the-ground treatment and deep-dive planning areas, and a roving monitoring team that crisscrosses the region, collecting data before and after restoration.

Invest in clean water for nature and New Mexicans today>

One effort this year focused on places critical to New Mexico's water supply: headwaters of the Rio Chama and watersheds supplying the San Juan-Chama Project. Snow accumulates in forests surrounding the Rio Chama’s headwaters, releasing much-needed water in spring and summer. And the river itself is a “natural pipeline” for the Project flowing from Colorado to the Rio Grande. If there is one important place for the Rio Grande Water Fund to invest, this is it!

With a combination of tree thinning and managed fire, we restored 900+ privately owned acres here with the Chama Peak Land Alliance. Controlled burns were also planned and implemented, and fire management experience and on-the-job training—supported by the Fire Learning Network’s Training Exchange program (TREX)—was provided for an eclectic group of private land managers and 20+ people from local, state and federal agencies.

Now that we’ve hit our stride, we’re showing people what smart restoration looks like at three demonstration sites along the banks of the Rio Hondo. With Water Fund support, the Taos Valley Watershed Coalition removed clusters of small trees to reduce fuel and diminish chances of damaging fires. Forest Service crews thinned overgrown trees.

Educational outreach programs and activities, a key Water Fund component, are also being developed. Photos of thinned versus overgrown forests will accompany interpretive signs and help visitors understand how a healthy watershed is maintained—and how that work helps boost our economy, as local contractors are hired and projects supply additional wood for market.

Our capital city is a top Water Fund priority, too. Nearly half of Santa Fe’s water comes from adjacent national forest lands. In the absence of natural fire, these areas have become overgrown, worrying fire experts that a wildfire could possibly damage local subdivisions in less than an hour.

The Nature Conservancy partnered with the Santa Fe Fire Department and National Forest to reduce tree density, improve the forest’s ability to withstand natural fire, and protect the City's reservoirs by creating a buffer. In total, 60 acres of city land and 20 acres of Conservancy land were restored in Aztec Springs via Water Fund support. For more information, visit http://www.santafefireshed.org/.

Job creation is an integral piece of the Rio Grande Water Fund—and it’s working. With the New Mexico Forest Industry Association this year, we conducted a survey of forest worker jobs comparing October 2015 to October 2016. Including employees and subcontractors, 20 businesses reported 244 jobs: a 5% increase related to thinning forests or creating products from trees. The bottom line? The forest sector was growing at a time when overall jobs in New Mexico were slightly declining.

The survey also asked businesses about the types of jobs provided, and offered four categories from which to choose: hand crew, machinery operator, crew boss or management, and administrative (see above). Most employees are working 10 months per year, since forest thinning operations are curtailed by deep snow, muddy conditions or high fire danger.

The long-term success of the Rio Grande Water Fund depends on sustaining 20-year funding—the time it will take to restore forest health and secure sustainable resources to maintain watersheds. A key characteristic of a Water Fund is downstream water users paying to protect their upstream water sources. Significant progress was made this year on both fronts.

The first public utility signed on, with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority providing $1 million over five years for projects from Albuquerque to Taos. We also received $50,000 from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, and the USDA Forest Service made a commitment of $2.4 million to match water user contributions.

And it’s not all about trees. Wetlands and wet meadows play a critical role in regulating streamflow in New Mexico’s mid- and high-elevation forests, but many have been degraded over time, impacting their ability to accumulate snow and slowly release it during warmer months. The above wetland on the left is an example of how nature stores water, whereas the meadow on the right in not retaining water and would benefit from restoration.

To care for these habitats, the Rio Grande Water Fund launched the Stream, Wetland and Aquatic Restoration Program (SWARP) in 2017. Three initial projects were selected: Cebolla Creek and Redondo Meadows in the Jemez Mountains, and La Jara wetlands in the Rio Fernando de Taos. In keeping with the Fund’s collaborative nature, grazing permit holders help plan and carry out the projects. In some cases, funding will be used to provide livestock with upland drinking water sources.

Support of the Rio Grande Water Fund by generous people like you is why this innovative partnership for New Mexicans and nature is so successful. Together we are:

  • Making our forests and waterways healthier, and providing critical habitat and cleaner air
  • Protecting precious water sources from devastating mega-fires
  • Creating economy-boosting jobs and wood products for people

We invite you to learn more by:

You can help secure clean water now and for future generations by investing in the Rio Grande Water Fund. Thank you!



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