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Fires can damage important watersheds

Forest workers from Restoration Solutions of Corona thin more than 100 acres of overgrown ponderosa pine forest in the Horse Camp area of the Sandia Mountains. The overgrown woods in the mountains of New Mexico are the result of a century of firefighting that prevented natural, low-intensity fires that used to clear out undergrowth. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Forest workers from Restoration Solutions of Corona thin more than 100 acres of overgrown ponderosa pine forest in the Horse Camp area of the Sandia Mountains. The overgrown woods in the mountains of New Mexico are the result of a century of firefighting that prevented natural, low-intensity fires that used to clear out undergrowth. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Krista Bonfantine can look up into the mountains behind her Sandia Park home and understand, better than most, the connection between the forested watersheds that provide most of New Mexico’s water and the stuff coming out of her tap.

As she opened the lid on the concrete box that surrounds Cienega Spring, which supplies her neighborhood’s water, she pondered what might happen if a fire burned through the overgrown woods above – the risk of floods tearing down the picturesque canyon, ash and debris wiping out the water supply intake.

Krista Bonfantine at the lid to the concrete box that surrounds Cienega Spring, which supplies her Sandia Park neighborhood's water. Fire and damage to watersheds have been an increasing concern, and she is part of an effort to tackle the cause: overgrown forests. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Krista Bonfantine at the lid to the concrete box that surrounds Cienega Spring, which supplies her Sandia Park neighborhood’s water. Fire and damage to watersheds have been an increasing concern, and she is part of an effort to tackle the cause: overgrown forests. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Fire and the resulting damage to watersheds have been an increasing concern in recent years, and Bonfantine is part of an ambitious effort to tackle the cause – overgrown forests in New Mexico’s mountains.

While the risk to Bonfantine’s neighborhood is nearby, and therefore immediately apparent, the widespread risk of fire in the watersheds that provide much of New Mexico’s water supplies is harder to see.

The problem is not just the forests themselves, explained Beverlee McClure, president of the Association of Commerce and Industry, a business group. The threat of upland fires threatens the reliability of the water supplies on which we all depend, she said.

“This is an issue that impacts everyone from Main Street on,” McClure said in an interview.

McClure’s organization is part of The Rio Grande Water Fund, a broad-based coalition that is working to scale up patchwork efforts underway in the mountains of northern and central New Mexico to restore forests in order to protect the watersheds and water systems on which they depend.

As McClure spoke, a crew from a Corona-based company called Restoration Solutions was at work up the road with chain saws, felling trees in an overgrown patch of woods at a place called Horse Camp on the edge of the Cibola National Forest.

The overgrown woods in the mountains of New Mexico are the result of a century of firefighting that prevented natural, low-intensity fires that used to clear out undergrowth. The result is forests that are so thick in places that they are hard to walk through.

A bunch shear cuts off a tree in an overgrown pine forest in the Horse Camp area on the edge of the Cibola National Forest. Government-funded efforts already clear 3,000 to 5,000 acres per year, but research assembled by the Rio Grande Water Trust team suggests more is needed. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

A bunch shear cuts off a tree in an overgrown pine forest in the Horse Camp area on the edge of the Cibola National Forest. Government-funded efforts already clear 3,000 to 5,000 acres per year, but research assembled by the Rio Grande Water Trust team suggests more is needed. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Once fires do get started, the buildup of fuels can make them devastating. The results can be seen most notably in the Jemez Mountains north of Albuquerque, where the 2011 Las Conchas Fire burned 156,000 acres, an area 10 times the size of Manhattan.

Flood waters that streamed off the burned watersheds that summer forced Santa Fe and Albuquerque to shut down their Rio Grande drinking water systems until the ash-polluted water had washed downstream.

Current government-funded efforts already clear 3,000 to 5,000 acres per year, but research assembled by the Rio Grande Water Trust team suggests far more is needed.

“We need to be doing 30,000 acres per year,” said Brent Racher, owner of Restoration Solutions, one of the New Mexico companies that specializes in the work.

Trees being cut last week on Forest Service land near the Sandia Crest Road can be used as firewood, but there is not enough money to be made from cutting the small timber clogging the unhealthy forests to make such work self-supporting, Racher said. “There’s not enough value in that wood to pay for what needs to be done,” Racher said.

Cienega Canyon spring water trickles downstream. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Cienega Canyon spring water trickles downstream. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

That is at the heart of the Forest Trust, which is attempting to raise $15 million per year in government money and private contributions to pay to expand the work, said Laura McCarthy, director of New Mexico conservation programs for the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group.

While the responsibility for the work in the past has fallen primarily on the federal government, McCarthy said in an interview that solving the problem requires more effort at the state and local level.

“This is a big problem that the federal government is not going to be able to solve for us,” McCarthy said.

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