Can cutting down trees protect New Mexico’s water?

A new collaboration seeks to ease wildfire’s impacts by thinning overgrown forests.

 

A haunting curtain of smoke rose from the dry New Mexico ground in 2011, covering the horizon with dark soot and ash.

The Las Conchas fire burned hot and fast that summer. In its six-week run across northern New Mexico, the unusually intense blaze turned more than 150,000 acres of Ponderosa pine and other dry forest into a virtual moonscape, frosted in places with ankle-deep ash.                       

But it’s what came next that really galvanized Laura McCarthy, a Santa Fe-based conservation director for The Nature Conservancy. Like many that summer, McCarthy watched the fire with a sinking feeling.

Shortly after the fire quit its rampage, thunderstorms erupted over the burned earth, unleashing debris slides that wreaked havoc on irrigation systems and turned the Rio Grande river so black that the city of Albuquerque abandoned its river water and reverted to groundwater for more than a month.

The fire was a turning point for McCarthy, who decided then that more needed to be done to help New Mexico’s forested areas – especially those around important water sources – survive wildfires. 

Rob Strahan, of the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute, ties a marker on a tree as part of a pre-thinning monitoring process outside Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico.
Katharine Egli

Today, McCarthy is part of an ambitious effort to put an old idea to new use. The concept is to carefully thin forests on both public and private lands to reduce the intensity of wildfires, preventing the kind of inferno that erupted in the Las Conchas fire and protecting water systems from wildfire’s catastrophic aftermath. To do so, she’s persuading many downstream water users to pay to thin forests around upstream water sources over the long-term. That means convincing land managers to care about more than their own immediate backyards and think further into the future than ever before.

The effort, called the Rio Grande Water Fund, has support from 52 cities, counties, water utilities and other groups. To date, the 2-year-old fund has raised $1.5 million and its partners have raised $7.4 million to treat a total of roughly 10,000 acres throughout the watershed of the Rio Grande River, from just south of Albuquerque to the Colorado border. Early money to kickstart the fund came from, among others: the U.S. Forest Service, a foundation run by hardware store Lowe’s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Wyoming-based LOR Foundation (which also has provided financial support for the project for which this story was produced). 

The goal? To thin 30,000 acres per year for the next 20 years. At $700 per acre, that’s $21 million per year.

The group is not yet close to having enough money, and even those signed on to the project say the scope of the project is daunting. But if it works, this elaborate partnership could be one answer to fostering more sustainable and fire-resilient forests and water systems, especially for small communities that don’t have the funding to treat land on their own.

Does it work? How?

Gary Harris stood on a dirt road that cut across a forested hillside outside Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico.

To his left stood a crowded forest: tall Ponderosa pine grew just a few feet apart, further crowded by shorter trees and shrubs. Dry logs littered the ground, some the scattered remains of past logging operations.

“It gets tough to walk through some of this,” said Harris, a forestry consultant based in Chama, New Mexico.

But on the other side of the road stretched a new kind of forest – a patch the size of a football field that looked more like an orchard than a dry jungle. Ponderosa pine still stood tall, but the ground was carpeted by only a thin bed of pine needles, free of small trees and shrubs. A truck could easily drive between most of the trees. 

This land was among the first parcels thinned using money raised by the Rio Grande Water Fund partnership — the “after” to the cluttered forest’s “before.”

Research suggests thinning forests reduces the intensity of wildfire, and that it actually restores the forests to their former state. Before humans cleared trees for wooden railroad ties, and before 100 years of fire suppression, wildfire routinely swept forest floors, keeping overgrowth in check. Forest thinning can mimic that natural wildfire, with similar effects. One study from Northern Arizona University found that reducing the amount of flammable fuels cooled fire’s severity. More trees lived through wildfires in places that had been thinned than acres that hadn’t, the study found.

Firefighters in Ruidoso, New Mexico, earlier this year credited forest thinning for the fact that a fire there burned mostly on the ground instead of leaping up into treetops, where blazes spread unpredictably and more quickly.

The Rio Grande Water Fund model is loosely based on a similar strategy in Ecuador, where the city of Quito invested money to create a water fund more than a decade ago. Today, the interest on that fund alone pays to regularly thin forests around watersheds that supply Quito’s 2 million residents with 80 percent of their fresh water. The model has been replicated across several other Latin American countries.

Major U.S. cities have tried similar systems, too. Denver has an agreement with the Forest Service to both pitch in $16.5 million over a five-year period to treat upstream forested areas. Since the 1990s, New York City has bought and protected thousands of upstate acres near its water sources in the Catskill Mountains. The scheme allowed the city to protect its supply without building an expensive filtration plant, saving billions of dollars.

Piles of organic material sit waiting to be burned.
Katharine Egli

The city of Santa Fe is already practicing a similar concept. About six years ago, the city raised its water rates and dedicated about $270,000 per year to thin forests around reservoirs that supply about 40 percent of the city’s water.

It’s worked well so far, said Rick Carpenter, Santa Fe’s water resources and conservation manager. Though the city had allocated money to thin forests in its operating budget since the early 2000s, Carpenter said, the rate increase guaranteed a more dependable funding stream.

“I suppose the largest measure of success is that we haven’t had any fires in our watershed,” he said. “It’s not perhaps as quantifiable as people might like, but it speaks for itself.”

But forest thinning is slow, expensive work. Over the last 15 years, the city has thinned about 6,000 acres.

Unlike the models of Quito and Santa Fe, the Rio Grande Water Fund doesn’t have a single, or specific, financial mechanism. Downstream users chip in money or other technical help. To pay for thinning, they can pass bonds, raise water rates, or make one-time contributions. McCarthy’s theory for sustainability is twofold. First, build a diverse funding base so that one partner pulling out, or one funding stream falling through, doesn’t derail the project. Her other theory is more like something out of a social science textbook: Allow the group to build momentum, she says, and it will sustain itself.

“As long as you’re not the only one with skin in the game, you’re willing to have skin in the game,” she said.

Landowners choose their own contractors, and can do what they please with the wood they thin. Some will sell what wood they can and burn what they can’t; others intend to leave it for firewood. The Nature Conservancy staffs the Rio Grande Water Fund now, but one day, McCarthy said, it may turn management over to the partners.

More than half of Albuquerque’s water comes from areas within the region targeted by the fund, said John Stomp, the head of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, which has pledged to support the project. Other entities that have offered some kind of support include the New Mexico Acequia Association, the state Department of Game and Fish, the University of New Mexico, and even Taos Ski Valley.

The project’s greatest strength – and its greatest hurdle – lies in its web-like collaboration of dozens of public and private groups. According to Stomp, deciding where to focus thinning efforts, how to thin, and how to pay is a complex puzzle, and is one reason why more thinning hasn’t happened in more communities so far. The fund, he said, may bring coherent planning to the region – something that’s long been missing.

“How does one community do all of these things?” Stomp said. “Well, they can’t. I think they have to join together. I think that’s what it takes.”

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.