According to Ryan Flynn, Secretary-Designate of the New Mexico Environment Department, approximately 30 percent of his state’s streams fall short of one or more standards for acceptable water quality. Rivers display impairments associated with erosion and associated turbidity, organic contaminants, water temperature, poor floodplain connectivity, and colonization of riparian zones by invasive and hydrology-disrupting plants. These problems – particularly in the Gila, Pecos, and Jemez drainages – have been exacerbated by ashflows and flooding wrought by the devastating wildfires over the last few years. Salting the wound is New Mexico’s dubious distinction of being the nation’s most drought-stricken state, and the most authoritative data on climate trends predict a continued dearth of precipitation in the southwest, without a foreseeable end.
Hats off to Governor Susana Martinez for taking the reins on New Mexico’s water situation. On August 15, she announced that she would request 1.5 million in capital outlay dollars to fund New Mexico River Stewards, a program to restore troubled streams. If appropriated, these funds can leverage federal and local resources, providing New Mexican communities with the ability to construct the best projects possible.
As exciting as this moment appears, one might reasonably ask how 1.5 million dollars – even optimally leveraged – can put a consequential dent in New Mexico’s dire predicament. Most immediately, as Governor Martinez stated, local projects can produce local jobs for contractors. I think of the village of Pecos, whose recreation-fueled economy was pummeled by the 2013 Tres Lagunas fire, and how many families are suffering. In Pecos and elsewhere in drought-stressed New Mexico, every penny spent locally makes a difference.
The governor’s investment will also yield long term benefits, particularly in rural communities whose economies depend on the health of land and water. Healthy rivers can simply do more than impaired ones can. They produce bigger yields of alfalfa, chile, beans, and corn. They sustain more trout and wildlife, which fill freezers and sustain families through seasons of low income. Trout and wildlife also draw visitors from outside the villages, among them anglers and hunters who hire local guides, buy meals, supplies, and hotel beds, who go back home and gush to their friends about unforgettable experiences. The friends visit, then tell their own friends. Most visitors are content to keep supporting local businesses on their trips; a handful of others buy real estate. In the right circumstances, a healthy stream gives rise to all this economic activity. Tax bases grow, villages are able to meet the needs of their residents and armor themselves against hardship.
What healthy rivers don’t do is at least as important as what they do. A healthy river does not make people or animals sick. It doesn’t bust from its channel with an inch or four of rain, because its meandering course slows the current and allow water to soak into thickly vegetated and absorbent banks (I always think this is why we call them banks) for subsequent release in times of scarcity. Healthy streams do not accumulate sediment beyond what they can use; they move it toward its highest purpose, be that to narrow a widened tailout or to nourish a side channel wetland.
Healthy rivers are resilient and adaptable, and with time and minimal disturbance, they become more so. In other words, if even modest steps are taken to heal an ailing stream, it will develop the capacity to heal itself. The more it heals, the faster it heals while becoming more resistant to injury. This is why Governor Martinez’ seemingly small investment, if managed prudently, is likely to deliver restoration results that are durable, efficient, self-sustaining and, in light of all this, of significant economic and social value.
This is a golden opportunity. Susana Martinez has packed us a big snowball. All we need to do is roll it down the hill.