Healthy Watersheds=Healthy Communities! The Rio Fernando Revitalization Project

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Rio Fernando de Taos -Photo taken by Olivia Romo

By Olivia Romo, NMAA Staff

In a time when Taos is undergoing huge transitions including the administration of the Abeyta Water Rights settlement, rapid population and development growth, and a hungry tourist economy you sometimes begin to wonder where the strong initiatives are to protect agricultural land and water in the once acclaimed bread basket of the Southwest. Contrary to popular belief, there is a lot of positive movement in the valley regarding the protection of water, land, and cultural heritage of Taoseños.  Like many rural communities in New Mexico, Taos is facing changing demographics , drought, economic downturns and a growing population with all natural resources at risk of being depleted. The time is now, for local leaders to come together in rehabilitating our communities’ strengths (land, water, and culture) creating a sustainable future for our valleys. 

The Rio Fernando Revitalization Project is an innovative partnership with multiple organizations that are trying to strategically address the environmental and ecological impacts of the Rio Fernando de Taos. The revitalization group is made up of the Town of Taos, Amigos Bravos, Taos Land Trust, Taos Soil and Water Conservation District, Taos Valley Acequia Association, and the Acequias of the Rio Fernando de Taos. The ultimate goal is to revitalize the river by addressing water quality, quantity, aquifer recharge, and natural habitat. Currently, the health of this particular stream is in jeopardy as contaminants including unacceptable levels of e.coli  have been detected in the water from the seepage of raw sewage, acequias have dried up from development and exhausted infrastructure, and the forest is clogged with invasive species and overgrowth slowing down the delivery of water to farms.

Rio Fernando Revitalization Group (Left to Right: TVAA  Board Members John Gonzales and Gabriel Olguin, Judy Torrez, Executive Director of TVAA, and Town of Taos Councilmen Fritz Hahn) visiting the atarque of the Rio Fernando Acequias" -Photo taken by Olivia Romo, NMAA Staff

According to Town Councilman Fritz Hahn, “Revitalizing our acequias will lay the groundwork for future kitchen gardens (land) which will spring up (farmer's market/culture) & our surface water delivery system will be refurbished; urban waters will drain to the parched lands and the upper aquifer will be recharged; Ag land & its tax status will be protected. Long term sustainability enhanced”. When Fritz was asked about the Town of Taos vision for the collaboration he replied proudly, “The water will bring us back together and offer gifts to our future generations in the face of climate change and adjudications, the  sustainability of our aquifer, buffalo pasture, tree canopy, park glands and more importantly education to newcomers about the importance of the acequia system. We hope our grandchildren will appreciate the hard work we’ve done to  retain our trees, water, acequias, and agricultural lands that we hope will not be too adversely affected”.  

In a political climate where legislative funding for acequias in the state of New Mexico is scarce and scrutinized, it is more important now than ever for acequias to enter collaborations  with county governments, local soil and water conservations districts, and other non-profits whose focus is land and water to mobilize resources and staff to bring acequias and agricultural land back to their natural order.

When speaking with Kristina Ortez  de Jones, Executive Director of Taos Land Trust, she also expressed the importance of the collaboration stemming from a drive to “protect our water and cultural resources in Taos for the continuation of healthy habitats not just for farmers but birds, elk and the aquifer”. The Taos Land Trust is focused on conserving and restoring wetlands that are hydrologically connected to the Rio Fernando de Taos. Additionally, the newly purchased property that the organization now sits on is 6 acres of irrigable land that haven’t been irrigated due to the fact that the Vigil y Romo acequia has gone dry because of  eroding infrastructure and obstructions preventing water flow. A part of the initiative is to resurrect this acequia which will feed farms that were historically served by this ditch and irrigate the property of the Taos Land Trust who will engage in demonstration and educational workshops around irrigation, farming, and conservation techniques. Taos Land Trust would like to see trails and the historic Fred Baca Park flourish with the help of the Rio Fernando pushing clean water into the wet lands that have existed for centuries nurturing an ecology for wildlife, farmers, and visitors of Taos.

A special contribution to the group has been the involvement of Amigos Bravos who has been monitoring the quality of the water on the Rio Fernando. After discoveries of e-coli in the water, acequia farmers are concerned about their crops, livestock, and soil nutrients. Critical partners like this are mobilizing the group to look at funding watershed cleanup in the hope of remedying the situation, cleaning the water from contaminants. With help from the Taos Soil and Water Conservation District the Vigil y Romo ditch and the acequias off the Rio Fernando are going to design and prioritize infrastructure projects to help increase flow and prevent seepage especially during those tough summer months.

"Vicente Fernandez, Mayordomo of Acequia Madre de Cañon de Sur" -Photo taken by Olivia Romo, NMAA Staff

Last, but not least one of the most critical partners has been the Taos Valley Acequia Association and the Acequias of the Rio Fernando de Taos who represent the farmers and water users. Judy Torrez, Executive Director of the TVAA said “the voice of the acequias is important for environmentalists to hear so they can learn about the traditional practices of farming and water rights. Acequia irrigation practices recharge the aquifer, provide agriculture, and more importantly are the people who are actively putting the water to beneficial use which if not utilized can be lost from our valley completely”. When on a tour of the Acequia Madre del Sur de Cañon, Vicente Martinez, Mayordomo of the association, showed partners problem areas  including access, where the forest needs to be thinned, acequias widened, the dam and other infrastructure replaced. “You can see where the dam is filled with sediment and compuerta aging so once the infrastructure replaced we can deliver water to acequias further downstream like the Vigil y Romo”. If the river is cleaned and the forest thinned more water will be brought down to the acequias and the river itself creating a healthy habitat for all those depending on the Rio. Vicente reflected on the importance of the collaborative, “The great thing about it is that you see all these groups coming together, as one, this is not about individual gain but the health of the stream and community, the watershed and a whole. If we don’t have a clean water shed the acequias will cease to exist. This is the first time in my lifetime to see the city becoming aware and taking responsibility for acequias in their jurisdiction, this is a giant step for our people!”

Although these types of partnerships and funding opportunities take years to cultivate it is a strong model for water projects that can build local leadership capacity, utilize funding resources and engage in strategic restoration projects that can transform rural communities in New Mexico. The NMAA is excited to see the positive strike of many shovels hitting the earth in Taos for the betterment of the community and future generation of acequieros, farmers and advocates.