How to Restore a Watershed in the Southwest

These community organizers are finding nature knows best when it comes to healing New Mexico’s waterways

By Anna Marija Helt

February 1, 2024

La Jara Wetlands, in the upper Rio Fernando de Taos watershed. | Photo by Jim O'Donnell courtesy of Amigos Bravos

La Jara Wetlands, in the upper Rio Fernando de Taos watershed. | Photo by Jim O'Donnell courtesy of Amigos Bravos

With its natural rock features, willows, and cottonwoods, the banks of the Rio Gallinas in Las Vegas, New Mexico, look almost untouched by humans. When I visited the river last fall, I met with Lea Knutson, the founder and executive director of the Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance (HPWA), a nonprofit leading efforts to restore New Mexico’s waterways. Knutson pointed out several boulders and a massive log embedded in the banks of this tiny river that supplies the city’s water. “The contractor that did that is such an artisan,” she said. The seemingly natural features were strategically placed to stabilize the riverbank and maintain the river’s new, sinuous path. 

Knutson was showing off Phase 1 of a project called “Rewinding the Gallinas River,” a plan to restore the most degraded stretch of a river suffering from centuries of cattle grazing, crop growing, industry, and human presence along its banks. A $315,166 River Stewardship grant from the New Mexico Environment Department supported the on-the-ground restoration work along a third of a mile of the river in the heart of Las Vegas. 

“People were really ecstatic when we did that first section,” Knutson commented. Pre-restoration, the riverbanks were trash-strewn, dried out, and largely denuded of native vegetation. “Coming through town, it was a ditch.” The deeply eroded river was cut off from its riparian zone: the floodplains, wetlands, and vegetation along a waterway that capture, filter, and store water like a sponge—a critical function in the arid Southwest. A healthy riparian zone also attenuates flooding in riverside communities and provides critical wildlife habitat.

With Oxbow Ecological Engineering of Flagstaff, Arizona, as the main designer and Watershed Artisans of nearby Santa Fe doing the on-the-ground work, a stretch of the Rio Gallinas in Las Vegas is now revitalized and reconnected to a restored riparian zone. Beyond shaping and stabilizing the riverbanks, the multiple boulder and log structures constructed also trap sediment to clear the water. In-stream structures additionally create ripples that please the ear while oxygenating the water to support aquatic life. In addition, thousands of square feet of terraced floodplain and wetland now flank the river. “We constructed this gorgeous wetland,” Knutson said, and it successfully trapped ash and sediment from floods that roared down the river following the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire in 2022 in the upper watershed. “We need many, many, many of those [wetlands].” Indeed, post-fire floods devastated the Gallinas Watershed, ruined Las Vegas’s water supply, and landed the river on American River’s Most Endangered Rivers list in 2023.

After construction, volunteers from West Las Vegas High School helped plant hundreds of willows, dozens of cottonwoods, and many species of riparian understory plants, all regionally sourced and adding beauty to the Gallinas River Park, through which the river flows. Shade from the vegetation, 15 new deep pools, and hundreds of feet of overhanging riverbank now cool the river, improving water quality and benefiting native cold-water fish. Climate change and other factors are increasing river temperatures throughout New Mexico, a serious problem according to environmental scientist Rachel Conn, deputy director of Amigos Bravos, a Taos-based water conservation organization. The warmer temperatures kill native aquatic life and drive the proliferation of microbes detrimental to human health. 

However, some locals—accustomed to the denuded riverbanks that have been the norm for generations—had safety concerns about walking through the newly established shrubbery to reach the water. Someone even surreptitiously cut multiple willows. In response, Knutson said that safety measures will include a widened, well-lit river path with emergency alarms at the trailheads. Additionally, the city will organize patrols along the path. Otherwise, the community has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the work, which Knutson hopes will engender broad support for HPWA’s ongoing restoration work in Las Vegas and beyond. 

While “waterway restoration” brings to mind attractive features such as willow thickets and rock dams, other aspects of restoration work are decidedly less photo-op-friendly. Work conducted by Amigos Bravos, for example, has taken on the less glamours work of addressing water pollution, such as cleaning up sewage. One of the group’s projects aims to identify, remove, and replace leaky septic systems on properties along the Rio Fernando de Taos. Estimated to cost over $300,000, not counting a proposed sewer system in part of the watershed, the project will eliminate a significant source of contamination. It takes convincing for some property owners. “Some people don’t want us to go poking around, because what if we find something?” Conn said. But Amigos Bravos, she noted, is “very committed to helping find resources” for funding the work.

Septic tanks are just one focus of a comprehensive watershed-based plan for restoring the ecological function of the river in Taos and improving water quality and quantity for local communities. Amigos Bravos researched and created the plan with funding under the Clean Water Act, and it targets E. coli sources, including cattle and pets. “A challenge is that there are certain groups of folks [who] think all the E. coli contamination is coming from the other group,” Conn noted, for instance, that dog owners blame the cattle grazers. In fact, source-identification via DNA testing shows that “everyone is the problem,” which has helped assuage the not-my-fault mentality.

Work is underway in the upper Rio Fernando de Taos watershed to reduce water contamination from national forest grazing allotments. For example, a mile of sturdy pipe rail fencing, installed by the local contractor All Around Fence, is keeping cattle out of the river and surrounding La Jara Wetlands in the mountains east of Taos. Additional fencing projects are coming, costing an estimated $80,000 to $120,000 each, which includes subsidies for installation on private land. 

Overall, the watershed plan encompasses 24 projects—septic tanks, fences, erosion control structures, and more—targeted at E. coli mitigation and restoration of river corridor health. 

The restoration work of Amigos Bravos and HPWA began long before the first backhoe arrives riverside. Phase 1 alone of Rewinding the Rio Gallinas required a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, a Cultural Resources Survey, approval of the New Mexico Environment Department and the City of Las Vegas floodplain manager, and the acquisition of multiple grants for planning, community outreach, and construction. Knutson laughed and said that her role with HPWA includes “grant writer, bookkeeper, toilet washer … all the way up to talking to the governor.”

Similarly, Amigos Bravos’s plan, approved by the EPA in 2020, requires environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act for some of the projects on national forest land and needed federal and state agencies, local governments, and community groups on board, some of which are now part of the Rio Fernando de Taos Revitalization Collaborative, a diverse coalition co-led by Amigos Bravos that’s putting the plan into action. Both Amigos and the coalition acquire funding, and different projects often involve a differing collection of coalition members. “It’s all kind of intermingled,” Conn said.

Another consideration of river restoration in the water-starved Southwest is that projects also have to work for populations farther downstream, according to Kim Eikhhorst, science and research director of the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program. For example, on reestablishing over-bank flooding for riparian health along sections of the Middle Rio Grande, Eikhhorst commented, “Those projects are incredible … but it has to be done in conjunction with making sure that it’s not impacting water deliveries … to Texas and Mexico.” The Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program monitors the health of the Middle Rio Grande, including the outcomes of restoration work, and provides data to inform management decisions at local, state, and federal levels.

As New Mexico becomes hotter and drier and its population continues to expand, the work of these and other organizations to protect and restore the health of New Mexico’s beleaguered waterways grows ever more critical.