LAS VEGAS, N.M. — The humble Rio Gallinas — a vital source of water for northern New Mexico’s acequias, residents and wildlife — is one of the nation’s most endangered rivers, according to a report released Tuesday by a national conservation group.
The river made it into the Top 10 amid the aftermath of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, which charred 534 square miles last year, burned water sheds and threatened the water supply of Las Vegas.
American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, ranked the Gallinas ninth on its annual list — a recognition, the organization said, of its importance to northern New Mexico families and the danger it faces from climate change and outdated strategies for forest management.
Farmers, conservationists and others gathered along the river Tuesday to highlight ongoing threats to the Gallinas following last year’s catastrophic wildfire, the largest in New Mexico’s recorded history.
They acknowledged the Gallinas doesn’t look like a mighty waterway by the time it flows through Las Vegas and reaches the Pecos.
It nevertheless feeds a network of acequias dating to the 1840s, provides drinking water for 13,000 residents of Las Vegas and nourishes plants and wildlife in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
“It looks like a creek to most folks,” Lea Knutson of the Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance said. But “every drop of water in that river is critical to all of us.”
The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire started in April 2022 as two U.S. Forest Service prescribed burns that grew out of control, one of which started near Gallinas Canyon. They later merged, scarring the mountainside, forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee and destroying hundreds of homes.
But threats remain.
William Gonzales, a farmer and rancher who has spent decades along the Rio Gallinas, said the lack of tree and plant cover this spring is melting the mountain snowpack too quickly to meet the needs of acequias, which face a dramatically shorter irrigation season.
Some of the historic irrigation ditches have been destroyed, Gonzales said, and others encountered water quality concerns.
“We are going to need an enormous amount of resources for years to come,” he said.
Gonzales himself said he hauled water to his livestock at one point last year. He is mayordomo of an acequia that traces its roots to 1841.
Rachel Ellis, associate director of the Southwest River Protection Program at American Rivers, said the placement of the Rio Gallinas on the endangered list underscores the importance of long-term planning to heal the watershed. She said she hopes state and federal officials will participate in a fire and water summit late this summer to help ensure a coordinated response.
“This year’s most-endangered river listings,” Ellis said, “really highlight the connection between the health of our rivers and the health of our communities.”
Atop the 2023 rankings is the Colorado River at the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The Colorado River basin, coincidentally, also provides drinking water for Albuquerque and other communities in New Mexico through the San Juan-Chama Project.
This year’s endangered list also includes the Ohio River in six states, threatened by pollution and climate change; the Pearl River in Mississippi, threatened by dredging and dam construction; and the Snake River in three states, also threatened by dams.
In 2019, the list was topped by the Gila River in New Mexico, threatened then by a diversion project and climate change.
The Rio Gallinas lies entirely in New Mexico, starting on the eastern slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and flowing 85 miles to the Pecos River.
Shelly Lemon, chief of the Surface Water Quality Bureau at the state Environment Department, said in a written statement that the bureau is helping carry out about $1.3 million in Gallinas River restoration projects, building on earlier work.
“I had not heard about the designation,” she said, “but it is not surprising given the devastating impacts from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire on this watershed.”
The bureau, Lemon said, is working to coordinate the state, federal and city efforts to improve water quality in the region.
San Miguel County Commissioner Max Trujillo said he hopes the designation calls attention to a river that might otherwise be overlooked.
“This is all we have,” he said as he stood along the banks. “We don’t have a Missouri River, or a Columbia or a Mississippi River.”
Knutson put it this way: “This humble river does so much.”