NAMBÈ PUEBLO – Chano Olivo is back at his favorite fishing hole – the placid waters of Nambé Lake, located on Nambé Pueblo about a 20-mile drive north of his home in Santa Fe.
“To me, this place is the best,” said Olivo, who on a recent sun-drenched Thursday was there with his nephew and young grandson to try their luck.
They were wetting their lines among the ducks congregated near where the lake is fed by the waters flowing down the canyon from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
“I used to catch ’em 17, 18 inches,” he said of the rainbow trout he’s pulled out of the lake in the past.
He even won a fishing derby there years ago. But he hasn’t been able to fish the lake for years due to the aftereffects of the 2011 Pacheco Fire, which burned more than 10,000 acres in the upper watershed.
The entire Nambé Falls and Nambé Lake Recreation Area, including camping areas, picnic ground and hiking trails, were closed last summer while contractors with the Bureau of Reclamation cleaned up the area, repairing roads, dredging 65,000 cubic yards of sediment from the lake and installing three new debris flow barriers at different elevations up the canyon.
The work was part of efforts to restore and protect the lake, which also serves as a source of water for the entire Pojoaque Valley, from being debilitated in the future.
Almost all the fish in the 56-acre lake died, choked out by ash-saturated runoff that came down the canyon from six miles above where the Pacheco Fire burned roughly 156,000 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest and Pecos Wilderness.
“Once the rains came, woo!” hooted Joe Vigil, the head ranger at Nambé Pueblo. “That did it. The water can’t go any other place. There was nothing to hold it. It all came down.”
And not just the ash, silt and sediment, he said, but boulders, logs and even whole trees still rooted in clumps of soil washed off the mountainside.
It has been an uphill battle ever since then. Heavy rain in the fall of 2013 resulted in extensive damage to the recreation area, warranting a disaster declaration from President Obama that helped secure funding for both the pueblo and the Pojoaque Valley Irrigation District, which manages and maintains the reservoir and serves close to 1,000 landowners with surface water rights, many of them farmers, north of Santa Fe.
Rains returned the following year, bringing more debris down the canyon. The pueblo and irrigation district applied for more federal funding and received it with the assistance of High Water Mark, a Cochiti Pueblo-based business that emerged from the flames of wildfires that have occurred in northern New Mexico over the years.
The recreation area and Nambé Lake have only recently reopened. The lake – freshly stocked with 3,200 fish, mostly rainbow trout – is drawing Olivo and others back, and attracting new anglers.
Mike and Shelby Herson of Española recently discovered the lake and the newfound fishing opportunities it allows.
“This is the best place I’ve found for fishing, it really is,” Mike said. He said the pueblo has “done a real good job of setting this up.”
“I like it up here because it’s peaceful and quiet,” Shelby added. “Plus, we love watching the ducks.”
After the fire…
Last week Nambé Gov. Phillip Perez met with the team from High Water Mark, formed in 2013 while Cochiti Pueblo was dealing with the aftermath of the Las Conchas Fire in the Jemez Mountains.
The company was founded by Phoebe Suina, a Cochiti native, who had helped lead rehabilitation efforts after the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire that burned through parts of Los Alamos. Recognizing a need for tribal representation to mitigate flooding and other natural disasters, she partnered with water resource specialist Ryan Weiss and has worked as a go-between with the pueblos of Cochiti, Santa Clara and Nambé, local, state and federal government agencies, and contractors.
There are a lot of layers of bureaucracy to wade through, but Suina says that since High Water Mark started in August 2013 it has been able to secure $56 million in federal grants to its clients.
“I tried fighting that fight myself in my first term in 2012,” said Gov. Perez, who after the Pacheco Fire traveled to Washington, D.C., himself to appeal to Congress for funding.
“We try to look at the big picture and align things with stakeholders,” said Suina, whose company works with the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and others. “Plain and simple, it’s about how do we keep people safe.”
High Water Mark’s meeting with the pueblo governor last week was to close out the recently completed FEMA projects.
After the floods, about $600,000 in funding was appropriated for infrastructure repair and another $1.5 million for mitigation at Nambé, while Pojoaque Valley Irrigation District got $4.5 million. Suina said 75 percent of that is federal funding, while the state and applicant each pay 12.5 percent.
“We’ve put a lot of work in getting the reservoir restored and doing work on the watershed,” Perez said. “We haven’t made a full recovery, but we’ve made a significant dent.”
The governor said he expects the opening of the recreation area will help spark economic activity on the pueblo.
“We’re trying to develop some type of business plan. There’s marketing potential to draw more revenue to the pueblo and we are collaborating with Nambé Falls Casino on that,” he said.
The small casino that offers “convenience-based gaming” opened on U.S. 84/285 near Pojoaque Pueblo’s Buffalo Thunder Casino and Resort in June.
About $1.5 million in funding went for installation of innovative debris flow barriers across the Rio Nambé as it runs into the lake.
“They’re starting to be used more in the Southwest, typically in mountain regions,” High Water Mark’s Weiss said, adding that one was installed in Santa Clara Canyon during the winter.
The chain link fence-like barriers stretch across the width of the canyon, anchored in the bedrock on both sides. They effectively work as sieves to catch debris coming down the canyon and can be easily removed without leaving much of a trace once they’ve served their purpose. They won’t stop ash that comes down with the water flow, but they will keep the debris from clogging the channel into the lake.
On the day a Journal North crew visited, several groups of fishermen had staked out spots around the edges of the lake. Ranger Vigil is excited to see the lake being used again.
“People have been calling me for four or five years asking if the lake is open yet,” he said.
Vigil said the lake gets used by tribal members but most people come from outside the pueblo.
“There are a lot from the southern pueblos – Santo Domingo, Cochiti, Isleta – that come up here to fish. A lot of people hear about it and come check it out. A lot of people taking the high road to Taos see the sign and swing by here,” he said, adding that he’s met people from such far-off lands as Germany, Switzerland and Japan.
With the 3,200 fish added to the lake since last month, he expects more visitors this summer.
Vigil said rainbow trout are most plentiful, but there are also some brown trout and sunfish to be found.
“Some guys said they’ve hooked some big ones but couldn’t pull them out,” he said.
Right now, fishing at the lake is limited to Thursdays through Sundays. Adults are charged $15 per day, while seniors and children pay $10.
The pueblo charges $25 for a primitive camping site, and $35 for a site with water and electric hookups. A “sightseeing” pass to explore the Nambé recreation area costs $10.
For more information, call the ranger station at 505-455-2304.