The damage done to one Native American community’s ancestral lands by the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history is being assessed as part of a new agreement reached between tribal leaders and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
An agency contractor this week started collecting aerial photographs of the burned area along Santa Clara Pueblo’s charred canyon as the first step in the watershed assessment.
Officials said the $1.8 million study is expected to take three years to complete. The findings will provide the basis for a long-term plan aimed at restoration and flood prevention.
The two partners were midway through a similar study when the Las Conchas blaze raced across more than 244 square miles of the Jemez Mountains this summer. The fire destroyed several dozen homes, threatened Los Alamos National Laboratory, burned through cultural sites and threatened an important water source for the pueblo.
“Now we’re going back to square one,” said Ron Kneebone, a tribal liaison with the Army Corps of Engineers. “We need new data on mapping because it has changed the geography of the watershed, it has changed the composition of the soils in the watershed, it has burned off all the vegetation. Whatever didn’t burn is getting torn up every time it rains as floods happen.”
Unlike the previous watershed assessment, Kneebone said the focus this time has expanded beyond restoration to include flood mitigation.
Situated at the mouth of Santa Clara Canyon, the pueblo faces the prospect of flood waters rushing into the community even with just a couple inches of rain, Kneebone said. He likened it to the community standing at the end of a fire hose.
“The fire is bad enough, but the aftermath of the fire is just as bad. The concerns will be around for years to come,” he said.
The agreement is the first signed with a tribal government under the Army Corps of Engineers’ tribal partnership program.
Under the program, a tribe can be awarded up to $1 million a year for water-related planning and to prioritize projects aimed at flood prevention, environmental restoration and the preservation of cultural resources.
The pueblo will cover 25 percent of the assessment’s cost.
Currently, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency are working to come up with a dollar figure for the damage done on the pueblo’s land.
Feds work with New Mexico pueblo on fire recovery