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Making waves on the Chama

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Ed Lucero, of Embudo, surfs on the Chama River near the Abiquiú Lake Dam. Dozens of people come daily to play on the wave created by New Mexico Game and Fish, the Army Corps of Engineers and Riverbend Engineering. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

ABIQUIÚ LAKE – When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created a habitat to help fish along the Chama River, longtime river-surfing advocate Ed Lucero hoped it would include the creation of a standing wave.

But when the coronavirus shut down the most of the state’s recreation areas, he was not really sure about the result of the work.

When he finally got a chance to see it about a month ago, “my mind was blown,” Lucero said. “It was beyond my best expectations.”

The feature a little ways south of the Abiquiú Dam is the culmination of what had been an ongoing habitat improvement project covering about 2.5 river miles that, “from a fishing standpoint, quadrupled the amount of good, quality fishable water,” said Austin Kuhlman, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lead ranger and natural resource specialist.

A decade in the planning and construction phase, the multi-agency, multiple-projects endeavor ended up costing about $1.1 million, said Tristanna Bickford, spokeswoman for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, which was heavily involved in the overall planning of the various projects.

Milo Light, of Los Alamos, used a kayak to surf the new Abiquiú Wave on the Chama River, built with 140 massive boulders following successful wave projects in Durango and Pagosa Springs, Colorado. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“A lot of the structures were built to create flow, so the stream wanders with some ebbs and flow to benefit fish and other wildlife, migratory birds and big species that would be in the area,” she said.

Seeing the success of wave projects in southern Colorado towns such as Durango and Pagosa Springs, Lucero has been pushing for a similar structure on the Chama.

And his pleas did not fall on deaf ears.

“This feature is a great control structure,” Kuhlman said. “At its roots, it is a habitat project. It happened that there was interest from the surfing and boating community. And there was an effort made, if it could generate a wave, we would try to. And we got lucky and it turned out to have created what seems to be a really nice wave.”

A nice wave would actually be underselling what happened, Lucero said.

“I’ve been traveling around looking at some of the other waves and the Abiquiú wave is by far the best wave,” he said. “There are so many things about it. It’s a great beginners’ wave. A nice, big, smooth wave. It’s an easy wave to stand up on. It’s the place we need. It’s a great beginning hill for surfing.”

From left, Sarib Jot Khalsa and Sebastian Crespo, both of Santa Fe, and Erika and Ed Lucero, of Embudo, take turns surfing the new Abiquiú Wave on the Chama River near the Abiquiú Dam. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

This was with the wave at 725 cubic-feet per second. As the flow increases, there’s no telling just how special that wave can be, Lucero said.

“This is world class for river surfing,” he said. “New Mexico has something to really show off and be proud of. It’s a watershed launching spot for this new sport. The Chama side of it is not snow dependent because they’re always releasing water. It seems as if a ski hill didn’t exist and now there is a ski hill. You just get the slope that keeps on going. I’m a snow boarder and it feels like snowboarding.”

The structure was built through the use of some 140 massive boulders stretching across the river, about three or four boulders deep, Kuhlman said, giving it enough support to withstand the water flow as it increases.

“In order to have healthy trout, you have to have healthy bugs, so you have to have good dissolved oxygen in the water,” he said. “That’s really kind of the main thing. It’s controlling the grade of the river. But it also creates a pool above with a good oxygenated riffle and a run below.”

And word of the wave is certainly spreading.

Sarib Jot Khalsa, of Santa Fe, surfs the wave on the Chama River, created to improve habitat for the river’s fish and other wildlife. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“I’ve seen boogie boards, surf boards and a lot of the playboat kayaks, the shorter boards,” Kuhlman said. “They’re doing spins and what not, and kids surfing. All kinds of stuff.”

Although not particularly dangerous, he said it is wise to take precautions.

“Like any kind of white water recreation, you definitely need to have proper equipment and skills,” Kuhlman said. “It’s not something that anybody should just jump right into. You need to come down and learn, especially if you’re kayaking, learning to roll and all of those other white water skills.”

Many of the wave riders use a helmet and life jackets are required, he said.

“The water is very cold, so you’ll see most everybody wearing a wet suit,” Kuhlman said. “There are some inherent risks with any white water activity, and this feature is no different.”

On a recent day, Mo O’Donnell and his 12-year-old son Ilan, of Taos, took turns in the wave.

Mo O’Donnell’s goal was to get up on his board, which he said was a bit too long and not wide enough to be ideal.


“I wish they would make a couple more,” he said. “We’re from Taos and it would be (great) to have something up there. I know they have a couple in Colorado. It would be nice if they made some more. Maybe I could finally stand. Hopefully, I can get off all fours and onto two feet.”

And even though it was cold, despite a wet suit, Ilan O’Donnell said it was worth it.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said.