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Update: Santa Fe Watershed, 2004

Overview


Santa Fe is a medium sized city of over 70,000 people located inlocation map north central New Mexico. According to the 2000 census, the median home value is $187,182 with 5% of the homes occupied seasonally. The median household income is $42,624. A high desert region, the area receives only 14 inches of rain each year. Santa Fe sits at 7,000 feet in elevation bordering the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range to the east. The surrounding area is comprised of a variety of forests with pinon-juniper transitioning to ponderosa pine which transitions to mixed conifer. The city is headquarters for several environmental groups that are vigorous in their efforts to preserve public lands and environmental values.

The Santa Fe Watershed

Northeast of the city resides the Santa Fe Watershed, an almost entirely uninhabited site closed to all public use. In the watershed, the Santa Fe River flows through the Pecos Wilderness to fill two reservoirs, Nichols and McClure, which supply Santa Fe with approximately SF watershed image40% of its water. Today the watershed is densely overpopulated with ponderosa pine, white fir, and douglas fir. The fire hazard in the watershed poses a formidable risk to the city's water supply. In 2000 one fire started in the watershed and a helicopter put it out. In 2000, two large fires, the Viveash and Cerro Grande, occurred near the Santa Fe Watershed. In 2001, 100 acres burned in a drainage in the wilderness on the east side of the Municipal watershed, with its head on the watershed boundary. These fires demonstrate the palpable and immediate threat faced by the Santa Fe in the watershed.

Out of the 17,520 acres encompassing the watershed, the Santa Fe National Forest (SFNF) is responsible for 15,493. Half of the SFNF acreage is located in the Pecos Wilderness, where thinning is banned, and therefore off limits to any treatment. The City of Santa Fe owns 1,124 acres. The Randall Davey Audubon Society owns 135 acres and The Nature Conservancy owns 290 acres. The remaining 478 acres are owned by private entities.

The density of trees in the watershed places it at risk from catastrophic wildfire. There is a high probability of a large crown fire burning the entire watershed during drought conditions, which have been prevalent in the last few years and are projected for the coming year. A large stand-replacing fire likely could have some, if not all, of the following effects: 1) heavy flooding into Santa Fe; 2) movement of soil, mud and woody debris into the canyon bottom and reservoirs; 3) damage to or loss of homes, habitats and drinking water supply; 4) spread of fire into residential and developed recreation areas; 5) major smoke infiltration into urban areas, resulting in health problems. Wildfire would denude the slopes creating conditions for sedimentation and erosion to fill the reservoirs thereby compromising the short and long-term water supply of Santa Fe. In addition to the risk posed to the water supply, the overly dense vegetation suppresses herbaceous plants reducing biological diversity and compromising soil stability.

Addressing the threat

The Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Project (SFMWP) has been the main focus for addressing this problem. The process to develop the SFMWP began in 1998 when the City of Santa Fe funded an existing conditions study to investigate the Watershed. The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Team began the NEPA process in June 2000. The EIS was developed by the Santa Fe National Forest. There was active participation by the "Partners' Group", which included the City of Santa Fe, the Santa Fe Watershed Association, NM State Forestry, NM Environment Department (Surface Water Quality Section), other community and environmental groups, and the academic community. The Partners' Group met for over a year while the Environmental Assessment and then the EIS was prepared. The Summary Draft EIS was completed in March 2001 and was unsuccessfully appealed. The Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Project was approved as NEPA-ready in January 2002. While the EIS has been actionable for more than a year, little thinning has taken place on site. Consequently, the Santa Fe Watershed continues to face great risk from catastrophic wildfire.

National Fire Plan (NFP) Community Assistance Programs

In New Mexico, NFP Community Assistance Programs incentivize communities to address their wildfire threat through five grant programs; 1) 20 Communities Cost-Share Program, supports thinning on private land, 2) Economic Action Programs, develops economic opportunities related to traditionally underutilized wood products 3) Volunteer/Rural Fire Assistance, improves firefighting capabilities of rural fire departments 4) Four Corners Sustainable Forest Partnerships, promotes community development through forest restoration and 5) Collaborative Forest Restoration Program, supports projects to restore forests on public lands.

Santa Fe has used the NFP Community Assistance Programs on a limited basis. In 2001, Santa Fe was funded $50,000 through NFP Community Assistance Programs.

 

image of SFNF

 

 

Why is the Santa Fe Watershed at such high risk of a catastrophic wildfire?

Prior to 1900 the ponderosa pine in the area experienced a fire on average every 5 to 15 years. Frequent surface fires favored a grassy understory and kept the pine density and fuel accumulation in check. The 1890s brought changes to the landscape. The transcontinental railroad was built which made large scale livestock grazing economical. Livestock grazing reduced the grassy surface fuels resulting in de facto fire exclusion, which was followed by institutionalized fire suppression. The most obvious effects of fire exclusion on area ponderosa pine forests have been increases in tree densities and fuel loading and a decrease in understory herbaceous vegetation. The changes in forest structure and fuel accumulations over the past hundred years have made these forests not only susceptible to crown fires but also from insect and disease outbreaks. The Santa Fe Watershed was closed to the public in 1932 to protect the water quality from the effects of grazing and undesirable human activities.

sign - SFW closed


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