Beavers be damned.
That’s the thinking of some La Bajada landowners who say the busy critters’ watery homes are blocking the Santa Fe River’s flow into the tiny village south of Santa Fe.
George Gallegos said the beavers “are creating a real nuisance” with an estimated 20 or so dams along a two to three mile stretch of river south of the Santa Fe airport.
In La Bajada — west of Interstate 25 and the south side of the big highway hill also known as La Bajada — the riverbed has now been bone dry for a month, Gallegos said.
Residents’ alfalfa fields, livestock grazing areas and vegetable gardens are all suffering.
“If you walk into the trees you’ll run into big lakes of water from the (beaver) dams,” said Gallegos, mayordomo of the La Bajada Community Ditch. “When the city releases more water into the river the dams overflow but then it dries up again.”
Gallegos said his squash yield is normally about 20 to 30 boxes. Right now, it’s perhaps two or three.
Gallegos and other residents believe the beavers are getting better treatment than La Bajada residents. “It’s an injustice what they’re doing to us for those rodents out there,” he declared.
Most of the water that trickles into the village area is effluent from the city-run wastewater treatment plant miles upstream, not far from the airport.
The beaver dams downstream from the treatment plant and the airport are spread across a patchwork of property belonging to Santa Fe city and county government and the Bureau of Land Management. Officials from those three entities, with help from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, are trying to find a way to get water moving downriver again.
Last week, as a temporary measure, officials trucked 14,000 gallons of water to La Bajada and pumped it into the riverbed.
Santa Fe County Commissioner Robert Anaya said he doesn’t believe the beavers are the sole cause of La Bajada’s dried-up riverbed, but they are a primary factor.
“Frankly, I think there’s some that might be more concerned about beavers than helping people’s livelihood. If I’m going to prioritize, I’m going to say let’s help long-standing communities that have water get their water,” he said.
None of several government officials the Journal spoke with were able to say definitively how large a role, if any, the beavers have played in drying up the riverbed downstream from their dams, or what other factors may be involved. It was noted that Santa Fe is experiencing one of its driest monsoon seasons in years and that several factors could be holding up or slowing down the water, including vegetation sucking up moisture.
“We intend to look at the situation much more closely to better understand the system there and come up with a better answer,” said Brian Drypolcher, the city of Santa Fe’s river and watershed coordinator.
Brandon Griffith, the Game and Fish Department’s northwest area depredation specialist, said the beavers have moved in from other parts of the river — “that’s what beavers do” — and their dams have slowed and widened parts of the river.
He said he couldn’t say whether the critters are at fault but did note “there’s a lot of factors at play” in the situation, including increased competition for the city’s effluent.
Griffith was at the river Monday to investigate the possibility of installing flow devices, also known as “beaver deceivers.” The mechanisms allow water to flow through dams without the beavers noticing.
Part of the problem, according to Gallegos and others, is that during the past 15 years or so the city of Santa Fe has, with state and federal grant money, done extensive riparian restoration and water quality improvements in the area below the plant.
The work has included planting native vegetation such as cottonwood and willow trees — much to the apparent delight of local beavers.
“We never had beavers in the area before, and a few years after the tree plantings the beavers showed up,” Anaya said.
A resolution on the matter is slated for review today by the Santa Fe County Commission.
In one passage, the measure declares: “It is otterly obvious that the Santa Fe River is being badgered by beavers and we need to do something, dam it.”
More seriously, it directs Game and Fish to do an assessment of beaver dams in the area and to implement a beaver deceiver program.
The measure also seeks to coordinate efforts with the city, state and BLM to improve water flow, evaluate the possibility of piping water into the river, provide drought relief assistance for La Bajada and create a working group to study the problems.
Anaya said he’d be interested in seeing the beavers and their dams removed altogether. But his viewpoint appears to be in the minority at this point, at least among the government officials involved.
The county’s resolution specifically advocates for beaver deceivers and other actions “in lieu of a river resident relocation program.”
Vegetation a factor
And not all La Bajada residents believe beavers are the sole issue. Sam Mendoza said part of the problem is also the planting of excess vegetation in the area combined with a failure to properly maintain it.
“It’s too overgrown. I’m sure they’re trying to do good but they’re not doing it right and I think private land owners know better than the government does,” he said.
Ed Sceery, also of La Bajada, said beavers “are just one of the many problems that the farmers downriver in these Hispanic communities are facing” but faulted the animals for leaving debris that could potentially cause flooding hazards.
“If you look at the situation at face-value you’ve got poor farmers, Hispanic communities begging for water and the concern of the city and environmental groups is a few beavers in the water,” Sceery said.