Conserving the bosque and its legacy

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Imagine what the Middle Rio Grande Valley looked like to the first people who inhabited the area, and the explorers who came in the 16th century.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Restoring the bosque to its natural ecological state allows native trees, shrubs and grasses to grow, offering wildlife habitat and attractions for insects, such as migrating monarch butterflies that enjoy this yellow native shrub, said New Mexico Soil and Water Conservation Commissioner Charlie Sanchez, who is also a board supervisor for the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District.

Historians recount the stories told of the great size of the river, its snake-like meandering and the thick, lush foliage of cottonwood and willow trees for miles outward from its shores.

The valley was a vibrant green panorama between the rising purple mountains and tawny mesas spotted with muted desert shades of sage green and yellow flowered cactus.

The natural resources of Valencia County are closely tied to the Rio Grande and the bosque along its banks. Farming has long since been a major activity in the area because of the rich land nourished by the river.

The Pueblo tribes dug ditches leading from the river to irrigate their crops of corn, squash and beans. The Spanish called the ditches “acequias” and adopted the practice for their own farms.

When irrigated agriculture began in Colorado, river water was diverted from the Middle Rio Grande people. Silt built up the river bed, and the untamed river occasionally flooded the valley, destroying farms, homes and land, said Tom Thorpe, public information officer for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

As valley populations grew over the years, the dense trees of the bosque thinned as wood was used for building and to fuel stoves, while the demand for water increased. People were forced to evaluate their impact on the land and the river.

In 1918, early environmentalist Aldo Leopold, who was the executive director of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, pushed for conservation measures that would mitigate flooding, reclaim swampy lands, provide a more equitable irrigation system and develop water storage.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, a stretch in the length of 150 miles, one to five miles wide along the river, was formed and approved by the state Legislature in 1923.

“Our mission, basically, encompasses three things,” Thorpe said. “Flood control, drainage and irrigation.”

In the 1930s, 150 miles of levees for flood control were built, along with 1,200 miles of drains, laterals and canals. Swampy fields were drained to make usable farmland.

In 1934, the Colorado, New Mexico and Texas Rio Grande Compact was established to insure equitable distribution of river water.

“It does include some parts for Mexico,” Thorpe said. “But basically, this document is what governs a lot of the water, and what water can be stored and when it can be stored.”

In good years, with plenty of snow pack and rain, water is stored at El Vado Lake, the primary water storage facility for the MRGCD.

“It was built for us, and to store water for farmers,” Thorpe said. “This year, if we had to depend upon the natural flow of the river for farmers and irrigating, they would have all been in big trouble.”

About 75 percent or more of the irrigation water has come out of storage at El Vado Lake this year.

“Run off was far less this year than normal, so we had to start using our supplemental supply a lot earlier,” he said. “We were releasing about 1,300 to 1,400 acre feet a day, and now we’ve exhausted our supply.”

Four major diversion dams were built to hold and store water for times of shortages. The four largest diversion dams include Cochiti, the Angostura Dam, which feeds Albuquerque; the Isleta Dam, which feeds the Belen region; and the San Acacia Dam, which feeds Socorro.

Managing the water is a cooperative effort with the river. The rio takes what it needs, and then human intervention can manage the rest to insure adequate water for crops and people, Thorpe said.

El Vado Dam and reservoir, owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, was constructed in the 1930s and can store about 200,000 acre feet of water, or more than 65 billion gallons.

Today, a computerized system controls the water and irrigation schedules. It’s a system of checks and balances. Water is put in the ditches, the checks are closed, which backs the water up and fills the ditches, and then people open up their turn-outs and get irrigation water.

When they’ve received their share, the turn-outs close and the checks are opened for the water to travel down for more farmers to irrigate.

“Visitors come from all over the world to see how our irrigation system works,” Thorpe said. “It’s a tried and true system that has worked for centuries and generations of farmers.”

Some of the acequias that are used are hundreds of years old, he said. Restoration of the bosque didn’t really begin until the 1980s, but regional conservation districts began to be established in the 1940s.

Local environmentalist Charlie Sanchez, a 10th generation Tomé native, started out in a career with the U.S. Fish and Game, and after retiring, served as a commissioner for the New Mexico Soil and Water Conservation Commission.

He has been a commissioner for the past nine years and a board supervisor for the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District for the past seven. His passion was to build a conservation refuge for Valencia County.

Dale Jones, a former chairman of the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District, was an avid wildlife conservationist and instrumental in the start of conservation efforts in Valencia County, Sanchez said.

He helped the district acquire a donated 97-acre tract of land in La Costancia, north of Rio Communities on N.M. 47, to start the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area.

The property had been a dairy farm for many years, and was nothing but a salt marsh, Sanchez said.

“It had an extremely high water table and alkaline soils,” he said. “So, we had a real challenge on our hands to decide how we were going to build a wildlife conservation area.”

There were water quality and soil degradation issues, weeds as well as a lack of native species of plants.

“I had the liberty to design it exactly the way I felt the components should go that would benefit the biodiversity of wildlife,” Sanchez said. “That was the key — that was the fun part, being visionary enough and designing a wildlife conservation area that would serve two purposes.

“One, diversity of wildlife and protection of wildlife resources, and the other one was an open space that would benefit young children in an educational environment.”

Sanchez and other volunteers have removed Russian olive, salt cedar and Chinese elm trees and planted close to 2,000 native trees and shrubs.

The Whitfield wetlands are being restored and once again, attracting migratory birds and other wildlife. As a wetlands habitat, the WWCA has been put into a permanent conservation easement with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Services Wetlands Reserve program. An education and visitor center was constructed with an award of $856,000 from the state Legislature.

“Whitfield is a crown jewel for Valencia County and the state of New Mexico,” Sanchez said. “Because we have taken land that was essentially not usable for agricultural commodities and were able to develop that land as open space for public use and for wildlife diversity.

“That’s the beauty of it. It is a prototype project that can be used in the Western United States, where we have perched water tables and high alkaline soils.”

Bosque restoration along the Los Lunas and Belen river bridges, including removing non-native species of trees and shrubs, removing fire fuel and allowing native species such as black willow, cottonwood, coyote willow trees, indigo, yerba de mansa, wolfberry, yellow currant and native grasses to grow.

Yerba de mansa blankets areas in the bosque and is a sign of a healthy bosque ecosystem, Sanchez said.

The Rio Abajo Conservation Area was initiated in 2006 in a joint partnership between the VSWCD and the New Mexico Game and Fish Department with a donation of 240 acres adjacent to the Rio Grande south of Belen,

“The area includes the bosque riparian area and uplands terrain,” Sanchez said. “Our intention there essentially is to work with Game and Fish and provide public access for visitors to do nature walks, and to provide opportunities for youth to be trained in hunter safety.”

The plans include removing the three pervasive non-native trees, plant native species and restore the land to its natural ecosystem function.

Another conservation project is the Abo Canyon Watershed Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep project, which started in 2008 by the New Mexico Game and Fish, VSWCD and the Claunch-Pinto Soil and Water Conservation District.

Some of the native wildlife of New Mexico include mule deer, Rio Grande turkey, Gambel’s quail, scaled quail, grey and red fox, porcupine, beaver and coyote.

“The bosque is dependent on the river, and the wildlife diversity and species is dependent on the habitat,” Sanchez said. “And the habitat provides biodiversity, so it’s all connected, and it’s all alive. It’s a living system.”


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.