Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Investment Program
What is a Watershed?
A watershed is an area of land in which all water that falls on that landscape, whether it falls as rain, snow, or any other form of precipitation, drains into a common body of water such as a river or lake. Wherever your are on the land surface of the earth, you are standing within a watershed. Watersheds vary in extent from small closed basins and small watersheds that surround our local arroyos, up to large watersheds that include major tributaries to large rivers like the Rio Grande.
John Wesley Powell, geologist, explorer, defined a watershed as:
"That area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community."
The Santa Fe River Watershed
The Santa Fe River which runs for
46 miles from the headwaters near Lake Peak (12,408 feet) to the confluence
with the Rio Grande (5,220 feet) is the center point of the Santa Fe River
Watershed. The total area of the watershed is 182,400 acres (285 square miles)
with the upper watershed comprising approximately 10% of this area. As a
tributary to the Rio Grande, the Santa Fe River Watershed falls within the much
larger, 116.6 million acres (182,200 square miles) Rio Grande Watershed. The
Santa Fe River was the reason humans came to this area several thousand years
ago. It flowed freely from its headwaters to the Rio Grande until it was dammed
History of the Santa Fe River Watershed
Prior to and throughout the 1800’s, heavy livestock grazing, homesteading, and logging occurred in the Upper Santa Fe River Watershed also known as the Municipal Watershed. This canyon was Santa Fe’s playground for swimming, fishing, and camping. By the 1920’s, the lower slopes were depleted of trees and ground vegetation which led to severe soil erosion that polluted the water. In 1932, the Municipal Watershed was closed to public access as a means of protecting the water supply for the City of Santa Fe.
Throughout the 1900’s, the U.S. Forest Service had a policy of aggressively suppressing all wildfires on National Forest lands. Intensive historic land uses on the Municipal Watershed followed by fire suppression resulted in eliminating the beneficial role of low-intensity surface fires in the ponderosa pine and mixed conifer ecosystem that dominates the area. This led to a forest that was highly susceptible to a potential wildfire.
2002 Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Project
We don't have to look far from Santa Fe to find examples of large wildfires that have destroyed watersheds and caused severe erosion that filled man-made water storage reservoirs with sediment and ash. With the Wallow, Las Conchas and Pacheco fires, 2011 was a particularly active fire season.
In 2002, soon after the devastating Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos County, the City of Santa Fe and the U.S. Forest Service needed to secure our water source from the threat of fire. Thus began the 10-year forest treatment program to reduce the fuel load within the non-wilderness portion of the Municipal Watershed. With broad support from the community and local and national environmental groups like the Santa Fe Watershed Association and The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service has successfully reduced the fuel loads on over 5,500 acres of ponderosa pine dominated forest within the non-wilderness portion of the Municipal Watershed. Thinning treatments have consisted of 1) cutting smaller diameter trees (<16" dia.) to restore tree density to natural fire regime levels (reduced from >1,000 trees per acre to 20-50 trees per acre), 2) slash pile burning, and 3) broadcast burning. Funding for this work came primarily from a $7 million congressional earmark, and a $1 million grant received in 2009 from the New Mexico Finance Authority Water Trust Board, both of which have now expired.
Today: A Long-Term Plan for Watershed Health and Reliable Water Supply
Santa Fe, like many communities throughout the American West, is highly dependent upon healthy forests within our watershed to deliver reliable supply of high quality water. Although annual precipitation and watershed yield has always been variable, climate change imposes additional imperatives on watershed management to ensure reliable water supplies in the future. In order to maintain the reduced fire hazard in Municipal Watershed below the wilderness boundary, treated areas require routine maintenance thinning and prescribed burning at 5-7 year intervals. In addition to areas already treated, approximately 2,900 acres of mixed conifer within the wilderness also pose a significant wildfire risk to the City’s water supply system and also require fuel reduction treatment and ongoing maintenance.
In the midst of an extended regional drought and other perturbations of climate change, these wildfires increasingly have the effect of permanently altering post-fire successional processes in southwestern forests, which, in the Municipal Watershed could mean a permanent loss of an ecosystem as well as the loss of the precious resource upon which we're all dependent - water. To prevent this outcome, the City of Santa Fe along with its partners, the Santa Fe National Forest, The Nature Conservancy and the Santa Fe Watershed Association have embarked on a long term, water customer supported, forest restoration program.
To address long-term Municipal Watershed health, in 2007 a collaborative planning group including the City, the USFS Espanola District, the Santa Fe Watershed Association and the Nature Conservancy were awarded a USFS Collaborative Forest Landscape Program grant to develop a 20-year watershed management plan. This planning effort culminated in development of the 2009 20-year Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Management Plan (Revised in April 2013), which provides a framework and recommendations for ongoing watershed management, environmental monitoring, educational outreach and long-term funding for long-term project. The plan addresses four areas critical to project success: (i) vegetation management and fire use; (ii) water management; (iii) public awareness and outreach; and (iv) financial management based on a “Payment for Ecosystem Services” model. The plan is unique in that it identifies City water customers as the beneficiaries of a healthy watershed, and proposes that costs associated with ongoing water source protection activities in the watershed be paid for by the public through the "Water Source Protection Fund". On the following pages you can learn more about this plan.
The 20-year Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Plan, adopted by the City Council through Resolution No. 2009-87, establishes the method and plan for forest treatments, the protocol for water quality and quantity monitoring, and recommends establishing a rate-payer financed permanent funding source for the ongoing protection of the watershed.
Avoided Costs vs. Program Costs
Based on recent wildfires in our region, it is estimated that fire suppression and rehabilitation costs associated with a 10,000 to 40,000 acre wildfire impacting some portion of the Municipal Watershed could be between $11.9M and $48M. The cost to dredge, haul and dispose of 2,000 acre-feet of sediment and ash the City’s reservoirs would likely be between $80M and $240M. These costs exclude increased water treatment costs, increased water utility operating costs associated with production of water from different water sources and impacts to the local economy from loss of tourism income. In comparison to these avoided costs, the cost to treat and maintain forests within the Municipal Watershed is expected to be $5.1 million over 20 years, an average of $258,000 per year.
Who Is Paying For This?
Beginning in 2013, the Watershed Investment Program will be paid for by the City of Santa Fe Water Division, through direct support from the water utility's rate payers. In effect, this means that the beneficiaries of the healthy watershed (water customers) will pay for the important work to protect their water source. This amounts to about $258,000 per year - a small price to pay for clean, high quality water.
Resources & Links:
1. Download a full copy of the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Plan
2. Website for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program
3. The Resolution that adopted the Santa Fe Watershed