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Forest thinning project gets off to good start

A worker thins out a section of forest during a Rio Grande Water Fund project at the San Juan-Chama headwaters. The water fund, launched in July 2014, joined with its partners to thin more than 10,000 acres of New Mexico forest during its first year. (Courtesy of Scott Ishihara)

A worker thins out a section of forest during a Rio Grande Water Fund project at the San Juan-Chama headwaters. The water fund, launched in July 2014, joined with its partners to thin more than 10,000 acres of New Mexico forest during its first year. (Courtesy of Scott Ishihara)

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

It’s been snowing in New Mexico’s mountains recently, but Laura McCarthy says much of that vital moisture will be wasted in the state’s dense forests.

MCCARTHY: Healthy forests good for business

MCCARTHY: Healthy forests good for business

McCarthy, director of conservation for the Nature Conservancy in New Mexico, said forests are nature’s water towers, releasing water in runoffs that feed the streams and rivers that provide drinking water and water for agriculture, industry and recreation.

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But trees in densely packed forests capture more snow than nature intended, cradling it in their limbs and losing it to evaporation or soaking it up in their roots and growing to make the forest even more of a tangled mess.

“Healthy forests, which are not so packed, release more water,” McCarthy said. “Overgrown forests are not in the condition to function as the water towers we need them to be. Overgrown forests work at 70 percent of their capacity.”

To tackle the problem of New Mexico’s tightly packed forests, McCarthy developed the Rio Grande Water Fund, a nonprofit entity that pulls together the business sector, water agencies and government forest managers to focus on tree thinning, stream restoration, flood control and wildfire management.

She said Nature Conservancy water funds actually started in Ecuador and there are water funds in countries such as Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

But New Mexico’s water fund is just one of two in operation in the United States. The other is in San Antonio, Texas.

The Rio Grande Water Fund was started in July 2014. In conjunction with its 45 investor partners, the water fund thinned 10,130 acres of forest during its first year. That’s more than three times as many forest acres as had been thinned in the state the two previous years.

“Before we launched the water fund, the annual average rate of thinning throughout the watershed was 3,000 acres,” said Ernie Atencio, the Conservancy in New Mexico’s water fund program associate. “That’s not enough to make a difference. In the first year of the water fund, we tripled the number of acres restored, and we hope to keep up that pace by thinning 600,000 acres in the next 20 years.”

McCarthy said the water fund did not have a definitive number of acres in mind for the first year, but she feels thinning three times the previous baseline is a good job.

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She said projects during the first year also resulted in 68 jobs – people hired from local workforces – to mark trees for cutting, to cut down the trees and to drive trucks. The work also produced 10,000 cords of wood for commercial sale or community use.

Before the water fund projects were initiated, it was estimated that thinning work would cost $700 an acre. McCarthy said that turned out to be about right.

“It depends on the steepness of the terrain and road access,” she said. “Work is less (than $700 an acre) in the Sandia and Manzano mountains, more in Taos and about on the mark in the Chama area.”

Variety of investors

Water fund partners are a diverse group. They range from Bernalillo County to Kellys Brew Pub, the U.S. Forest Service to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the LOR Foundation to the Taos Ski Valley Foundation, the last of which announced earlier this month that it was donating $125,000 to the water fund.

During the fund’s first year, this coalition put $1 million into actual on-the-ground restoration work in places such as the northern Manzano Mountains, south of Albuquerque, and the Tusas Mountains in Rio Arriba County.

“Every investor and agency has the opportunity to double or triple the impact of their money by coordinating their effort,” McCarthy said. “They see their money go farther because they see it being pooled with other people’s money.”

She said investors know that water is critical to the economy, and that water fund projects are as important to business as they are to the environment. Wildfires and subsequent flooding threaten water supplies that serve half of New Mexico’s population, and that’s not good for any sector.

McCarthy points to 2011’s Las Conchas Fire, which started in the Santa Fe National Forest and burned 150,000 acres, as an example of the havoc nature can play with dense forests. It doesn’t stop when the fire is extinguished.

Two months after the Las Conchas Fire, rain pushed torrents of ash-clogged water over the fire-stripped landscape and into the Rio Grande, forcing the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority to stop pulling water from the river and switch entirely to groundwater wells for 40 days.

It is the water fund’s goal to stop – or at least significantly reduce – such damage. McCarthy said she is encouraged by what has been achieved so far.

“I’m thrilled that we have made it past the one-year mark and found that this innovative concept is working,” she said. “Because the problem is not going to go away, and we have the responsibility to protect our land, water and wildlife for future generations.”

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