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New Mexico Water Agency Finds Innovative Way to Protect Headwaters

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority in New Mexico doesn’t own the land where its water originates, but it just donated $1 million to help protect it.

Written by Jerry Redfern Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The Rio Grande, a main source of water for New Mexico residents and farmers, in August 2016. The local water utility has donated $1 million to help protect its headwaters.AP/Russell Contreras

In June, New Mexico’s largest water authority pledged $1 million over five years to the Rio Grande Water Fund to protect the headwaters that provide drinking water for about half the state’s population.

“This is a huge deal,” said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program.

The contribution is remarkable for its size, and for the fact that it is a public utility – the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority – investing in lands it doesn’t own.

“That, I think, is just a super-smart investment on the part of the Water Authority,” said Kimery Wiltshire, with Carpe Diem West, a California-based consultancy that works on conservation issues across the Western states.

The Rio Grande Water Fund is a public-private partnership started in 2014 that gathers 50 foundations, private businesses, water utilities and federal, Pueblo, state and private landowners. The fund’s goal for the next 20 years is to protect San Juan-Chama and Rio Grande watershed lands from catastrophic forest fires by funding forest restoration projects on about 600,000 forested acres, namely through thinning and prescribed burns. That, in turn, protects the water downstream. The project was shepherded into existence by the Nature Conservancy, which is creating similar partnership funds across the U.S. West and internationally.

The $1 million contribution from the Water Authority is one of the biggest for the Rio Grande Water Fund to date. In many ways, it reflects remarkable public and political foresight.

This February, the Water Authority unveiled “Water 2120,” a management strategy that peers 100 years into the future on behalf of the people of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County. The goal is to predict future water needs, figure out where the water can come from and how to protect those resources.

A hillside in the Jemez Mountains west of Bandelier National Monument, N.M., shows damage from the 2011 Las Conchas fire. The fire impacted water quality downstream and has helped spur interest in protecting headwater forest areas. (AP/Susan Montoya Bryan)

And those resources need protection from fire. In June 2011, a tree fell on a power pole in the Jemez Mountains, igniting a fire that eventually incinerated more than 156,000 parched acres. Then, in August, the annual monsoon rains came. The deluge washed vast amounts of ash into nearby creeks and eventually into the Rio Grande, which ran black. The ash-filled water forced Albuquerque and Santa Fe to cut off their river water supplies and rely on other water sources.

“The Water Authority recognized the need to do something about our forests and what would happen to them in the face of climate change: catastrophic fire, drying, less snowpack, all of those impacts,” said Katherine Yuhas, water resources manager for the Water Authority. “The next 20 years don’t look that dire in terms of climate change and our water supply. But when you start to look out 80 years, then we start to see big impacts.”

The scope of the Water Authority’s view is unusual. “I don’t think there’s a lot of water utilities that have done a 100-year plan,” Wiltshire said. And that long view told the Water Authority that it needed to have a hand in preserving the places where Albuquerque and Bernalillo County get their water. Namely: upstream forests.

Historically, water agencies in the American West operated from a viewpoint that water “was just showing up in their service area. And they didn’t even have to think about what happened upstream,” Wiltshire said. That started to shift pretty dramatically in the past seven to eight years,” as climate change has increased the size, intensity and frequency of fires across the West.

As in many places, the Water Authority “is dependent on water that comes from a watershed that they don’t control,” Fleck said. But the Water Fund now allows groups to pay for restoration work on those forests.

Yuhas drove the discussion at the Water Authority about protecting the San Juan-Chama and Rio Grande watershed, which supplies drinking water to half of New Mexico’s population.

“This is a part of what we are planning to do long into the future: is to restore forests, create healthy watersheds so when we do have fires, they’re not as devastating,” Yuhas said. But the Water Authority can’t fix forests on land it doesn’t own. “So having the Water Fund is a fantastic thing because it gives us that opportunity to make that investment that otherwise we couldn’t,” she said.

Laura McCarthy of the Nature Conservancy realized that challenge years ago, and helped create the Rio Grande Water Fund.

“The problem of overgrown forests that are burning catastrophically and impacting water security at the scale of the Rio Grande basin is a new kind of problem,” McCarthy said. “It requires solutions that need unprecedented levels of cooperation between agencies and between the public and private sectors.”

The Forest Service and the Department of Interior “are not set up to deal with systems-level problems of the complexity and magnitude that we face today,” McCarthy said. “You need a different toolbox.”

And that toolbox is the Rio Grande Water Fund. “It gives us this really creative environment to work on joint problem-solving,” she said. “We really appreciate the very thoughtful way the Water Authority went about making sure they had the policies in place in order to be able to make the commitment they’ve made to the Rio Grande Water Fund.”

Yuhas said the Water Authority plans to continue its donations well into the future. “This is not something that we’re going to fix in five years; this is a continuing need for investment,” she said. “This is making sure that my grandchildren, the grandchildren of everybody here in Albuquerque, will have the same opportunities for a sustainable water supply that we do.”

And McCarthy points out that if more fires in the future burn the way the Las Conchas fire did, “It’s bad news for New Mexico. That’s not funny. There’s no messing around there. This is an insurance policy.”

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