Bringing back the bosque

Pueblo tribes take the lead in restoring the Rio Grande's riverside forest

  • HE REMEMBERS: Santa Ana Pueblo Tribal Administrator RoyMontoya

    Jim O'Donnell
  • The cottonwood - an icon of the West

    Michael Berman
  • RESTORING THE RIVER: Santa Ana Pueblo work crews on theRio Grande

    Todd Caplan
  • Gina Della Russo of the Bosque del Apache NationalWildlife Refuge

    photo courtesy Gina Della Russo
  • The Middle Rio Grande Valley

    Diane Sylvain

SANTA ANA PUEBLO, New Mexico - Roy Montoya remembers the bosque. He remembers riding in a horse-drawn wagon through the bosque - the cottonwood forest that lined the Rio Grande - as he and his family made a summer pilgrimage to the "old pueblo," called Tamaya.

"When I was young, only three or four families had cars. The rest of us had wagons," says Montoya, who today, at 60, is the Santa Ana tribal administrator. "We used to cross the Rio Grande and ride up the old railroad bed."

The riverside forest was like an open park, and families gathered beneath the cottonwoods to escape the summer heat. "When we were allowed, we went swimming and played in the bosque," he says. "We took the elderly people down to the river. We gathered mushrooms down there."

Then life changed. Montoya grew up and joined the military, then went to school and worked in accounting for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It was 1980 before he visited the bosque again. "It was a totally different place," he says. Gone was the open forest. In its place was a thicket of exotic trees so dense, "you couldn't crawl through there." 

But Montoya remembered the bosque, and eventually that memory inspired action. Today, the Santa Ana Pueblo is bringing back the bosque through an ambitious restoration effort underwritten by the tribe's casino and restaurant operation. The project has attracted attention - and funding - from federal agencies and private foundations. It's the most dramatic of many efforts along the Middle Rio Grande in central New Mexico to revive the largest cottonwood gallery forest in the Southwest.

The Santa Ana project offers hope in a region that scientists estimate has lost up to 98 percent of its rare riparian woodlands - woodlands that provide critical habitat for wildlife in an otherwise dry landscape. It also demonstrates what can be done when red tape is minimized. As a sovereign nation, the Santa Ana Pueblo has been able to take a quantum leap in restoration on the Rio Grande when hosts of federal, state and city officials have made only halting progress.

"The pueblos live a little closer to the ground," says Les Ramirez, an Albuquerque attorney and Kiowa Indian who is a consultant for Santa Ana. "Their government operations are a little more streamlined."

Some days, it seems that the former Soviet Union must have been a little more streamlined than the bureaucracy that manages the Middle Rio Grande. Any discussion of river restoration must include a litany of federal agencies, interstate commissions, state entities, Indian pueblos, farmers, cities and environmental groups. While this tangle of interests is slowly turning toward restoration, it may never fully embrace it. Thanks to dams and diversions, and growing cities and suburbs along the riverbanks, the bosque will never return to the way it was when Montoya was a boy. And questions remain about whether a shackled Rio Grande can nurture a healthy riparian forest.

But with time and cooperation, some say New Mexico could be home to patches of wild forest that provide havens for endangered wildlife - what Les Ramirez calls "pearls on a string." 

Roy Montoya was born in 1940, the year the Middle Rio Grande saw its worst flood in 60 years. The deluge sent Santa Ana people moving to high ground and inundated downtown Albuquerque, destroying the Sisters of Loretto convent. The next spring, it rained an unheard-of 29 inches between January and May, flooding 50,000 acres and knocking out dams and railroad bridges.

It was the last great flood this stretch of river ever saw.

Over the decades that followed, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tamed the Middle Rio Grande. They built dams on the Rio and its tributaries. They bulldozed levees and set up rows of Kellner jetty jacks - iron beams bolted and wired together to capture sediment and stabilize the riverbanks.

Historically, the Rio Grande through the Middle Valley was a braided, meandering river, 2,000 to 3,000 feet wide. The floodplain was dotted with backwaters, teeming with waterfowl and fish. Once engineers were finished, though, it was a uniform 600 feet wide, and from Santa Ana to the Rio Puerco, levees and jetty jacks locked it in place. As a conduit for water, it was more predictable and, perhaps, more efficient. As a river, it was completely altered.

As the river changed, so did the bosque, because the bosque was tuned to the river's clock: Historically, each spring, the Rio Grande would swell with snowmelt and spill over its banks. The floodwaters would create a muddy seedbed for the cottonwoods, which dropped thousands of gauzy seeds to coincide with high water. When the timing was perfect, young cottonwoods would sprout.

It was a perilous process, and only a fraction of the seeds survived, says former University of New Mexico professor and bosque expert Cliff Crawford. Some years, floods would wash seeds away, while in other years, the ground would dry up too quickly, and seedlings would die. "It can't be too much, it can't be too little," he says. "It has to be just right."

Dams subverted this delicate process by eliminating spring floods. In the place of cottonwood seedlings, a thicket of exotics popped up. The grand old cottonwoods were crowded by Russian olive, Siberian elm and Asian saltcedar or tamarisk, trees brought to the U.S. for landscaping, which escaped and ran wild along virtually every river in the Southwest. Native plants, animals and birds were squeezed out (HCN, 5/25/98: Tackling tamarisk).

For the first time, the bosque began to burn. In its natural state, the bosque had seen occasional, low-intensity ground fires. The old cottonwoods had rarely ignited. But with no floods to wash away or bury debris or promote decomposition, deadwood and tinder piled up on the forest floor. Tamarisk and shade-tolerant Russian olive gave fire a ladder. Flames climbed into the tops of the cottonwoods, torching them.

Following fires, and in the absence of floods, the exotics had all the advantage. The cottonwood bosque became in places an impenetrable tangle of exotic trees.

This was the scene in 1996, when the Santa Ana Pueblo hired Todd Caplan to create a tribal natural resources department. Fresh out of the University of Montana with a degree in restoration ecology, Caplan's first mission was to start removing tamarisk from the bosque. Over two years, his mandate morphed into a full-blown river restoration program.

In some cases, if left alone, a river will restore itself, says Caplan, but not here. Cochiti Dam, built upstream from the pueblo in the mid-1970s, not only stopped spring floods, it trapped sediment that had washed down from muddy tributaries. Where once the river set down sediment and actually built upon its floodplain, Caplan found the situation reversed: In the two decades since the dam was completed, the river had carved a narrow channel eight feet into its bed.

Dam managers released occasional high flows, but chances of getting sufficient water in the river to inundate the floodplain and germinate young cottonwoods were zilch. Worse, Caplan worried that if the river carved its bed any deeper, the groundwater table would drop so low that even existing cottonwoods would be left high and dry.

The situation called for drastic measures - and heavy machinery. Caplan hired pueblo work crews to mow and root-plow a huge thicket of tamarisk. They chopped up the roots, added gypsum to the salty soil and planted native grasses.

The next target was the shade-tolerant Russian olives that had crowded in under the cottonwoods. Tractors outfitted with mulching heads ripped into the exotic trees. Crews followed with chainsaws and with backpack tanks of herbicides to poison the roots. When even that failed to kill the larger Russian olives, Caplan's crews brought in log loaders and ripped out stumps and roots like huge, snarled carrots.

"We contracted with people from Montana, Texas - all over - for equipment," says Caplan.

Two years later, the results are stunning. Native grasslands have come back on 115 acres, while 235 acres of bosque are once again open, sun-dappled cottonwood groves. 

Ecological restoration has also become an asset for economic development on the Santa Ana Pueblo, which already houses the Prairie Star Restaurant and Santa Ana Star Casino, a golf course and a huge soccer field complex. The bosque has become the setting - and a major selling point - of a new 350-room Hyatt Regency resort and spa called "Tamaya" (HCN, 6/4/01: Tribal Links). The resort offers carriage rides down to a lighted walking path through the bosque, says Roy Montoya. "The whole visual effect is really fantastic."

But there is a hitch: The present bosque's days are numbered. All the cottonwoods in the forest are about the same age (Caplan believes they were germinated by the 1941 flood), and they stand on high ground, eight feet above the level of the river - well out of the reach of any floodwaters. Without floods, no young trees will ever sprout here. From time to time, the pueblo will have to replant the cottonwoods, says Caplan, or find a way to induce them to send up shoots from their roots, the way aspen trees - close relatives of cottonwoods - do.

Contemplating their next move, pueblo officials wondered if, rather than bringing the river up to the floodplain, they could bring the floodplain down to the river. In the fall of 2000, the bulldozers rolled again, this time to take four feet of earth off parts of the floodplain along six miles of the Rio Grande within the pueblo. Thousands of pounds of earth were pushed into the river's path to help replenish its sediment load. The floodplain, as a result, was low enough that last spring's meager floods from Cochiti Dam washed over it, germinating a new generation of cottonwoods.

All this work would be for nothing, of course, if the river continued to carve deeper. So crews embedded massive steel walls in the riverbed to hold it steady. They also widened the river channel to create backwaters where someday, endangered silvery minnows may find refuge (HCN, 8/28/00: Shaky truce on the Rio Grande). Still, to really restore this stretch of the Rio Grande, Santa Ana will need silt, and lots of it. There's plenty to be found in the bottom of Cochiti Reservoir, says Caplan, but putting it back in the river may be at odds with maintaining clean water standards.

Nonetheless, the project is getting attention. What started with a $37,000 investment from the tribe has garnered millions more from the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and private foundations. Caplan says he's become a tour guide, escorting groups of students, agency staffers and scientists through the restoration area.

"It's just never ending," he says. "It's the first project to step out into the river like this on the Rio Grande. It's become the model for tribal-federal cooperation."

Bringing back the bosque isn't always such a grand affair.

Downstream from Santa Ana, on the northern edge of Albuquerque, the Sandia Pueblo has its own project under way. Using chainsaws, herbicides and a single backhoe, pueblo work crews have cleared 20 acres of Russian olive and Siberian elm. They have disassembled jetty jacks by hand, giving the angle irons and wire to tribal members to build fences. They've planted cottonwoods, native shrubs and grasses.

As at Santa Ana, "we based our design on memory," says Beth Janello, the pueblo's environmental director. "One elder said he could see 100 yards in every direction" while standing in the bosque. Someday, she says, the Sandias will be able to see that far again, but keeping it that way could be tricky. The pueblo owns only the east bank of the Rio Grande, while private land across the water is still thick with tamarisk - infamous for its ability to broadcast its seeds via wind and water.

Follow the river from Sandia down through the Middle Valley and you'll run into more efforts to revive the bosque. In Albuquerque, the city open-space department and environmentalists have used prison work-release crews and volunteers to clear exotic trees and plant native vegetation. Teachers in Belen are involving elementary school children in the effort, while in Socorro, residents have created a task force to keep teenage partyers from trashing the bosque. The list goes on.

"The model that was developed at Sandia offers enormous potential for communities to restore the bosque in their neighborhoods," says Deb Hibbard with the nonprofit Rio Grande Restoration in Albuquerque. "With public participation and awareness, you can accomplish a lot without it costing a lot. You can have enormous impact on a small scale."

Some of the pioneering research is being done even farther south, on the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, which hosts thousands of migrating cranes, geese and other waterfowl each year. While the refuge is a haven for wildlife, it's heavily managed. In one staff member's words, "Every inch of this refuge has been gone over with a bulldozer - twice."

Refuge biologist John Taylor and ecologist Gina Dello Russo have developed many of the restoration methods being used upstream. They've turned 1,000 acres of tamarisk and weeds back into a patchwork of native vegetation. Much of the bosque within the refuge is now irrigated occasionally to mimic floods, and managers plant corn and other crops to feed the flocks of birds that winter here.

So far, most of the work has been done outside the levee, which runs up the Rio Grande's west bank, says Dello Russo. The next project, however, will be to move across the levee, and start restoring 4,000 acres of bosque along the river. The 10-mile stretch offers a unique opportunity, she says, because here, the river hasn't carved into its bed as it has upstream in Santa Ana Pueblo. Here, widespread floods are still possible without digging into the floodplain or asking a laundry list of shareholders for huge amounts of water.

And floods are needed to restore the bosque on a large scale over the long run, says Dello Russo. Not big floods, she says, and not every year. But the Rio Grande needs to flood, and soon. Many of the big cottonwoods will die within the next 60 years, she says, and the bosque needs young sprouts. Without young trees, the bosque will be a thing of the past.

So, it all comes back to water, and water on the Rio Grande is always a contentious subject. In the Middle Valley, six Pueblos and the city of Albuquerque share the Rio Grande with farmers, who use 90 percent of the water from this reach to irrigate pecans, cotton and chilies. Environmentalists, meanwhile, have fought tooth and nail to keep some water in the river for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow and other wildlife.

The bosque can be a rallying point for urban and rural residents, and for farmers and environmentalists, but recent history shows that its power as an icon may not be enough to move the entrenched bureaucracy on the Middle Rio Grande. Over a decade ago, New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici created a committee to study how best to manage the bosque. The group turned to bosque guru Cliff Crawford.

Heading an interagency team of scientists, Crawford in short order produced the "Bosque Biological Management Plan." The plan revealed an ecosystem stressed by humans and exotic tree species, and offered a blueprint for how to return it to a mosaic of native trees, shrubs and grasses. Clearing tamarisk and other invaders would be necessary, the team wrote, but the key to long-term restoration would be to use dams to mimic the natural fluctuations of the river, including small-scale spring floods.

"The key to the bosque is the river," says Crawford. "It will never be like it was before, but you can allow the river to be somewhat like it was. And if you allow it to mimic its natural flow regime, you can allow some semblance of the bosque to survive."

Shortly after the plan was released in 1993, a dispute erupted over the silvery minnow. Since then, Domenici has brought home several million federal dollars to fund small-scale bosque restoration programs. But most discussion now centers on the minnow and Southwest willow flycatcher, rather than the ecosystem on which they both depend, says Crawford. In the case of the minnow, this has meant that agencies have focused on survival flows during summer months, rather than on spring floods.

"The Bosque Biological Management Plan doesn't come up for a lot of discussion by the feds. It's very frustrating," says Crawford. "The ESA business has so consumed them, that they're after some level of single-species management. I think they're missing the point. You can't look at an endangered species in a vacuum." 

Some within the agencies, however, are keeping their eyes on the ecosystem and on flooding. As Gina Dello Russo works to revive the riparian area in the Bosque del Apache, the subject of floods is unavoidable. It also presents some interesting problems.

The San Marcial railroad bridge is one of them. Downstream of the refuge, it is slung low enough across the river that any significant flood would wash it out. More formidable is development on private land east of the river, an area that is unprotected by any levee. "There are a couple of homes on the east side of the river that we would flood with 6,000 cfs (cubic feet per second)," she says. And 6,000 cfs is small potatoes compared to the 40,000 cfs rumblers that washed through here in the 1920s and '30s.

The good news is that little of the land east of the river has been built on. Most of the ditches and farms have been abandoned, and the floodplain has been taken over by tamarisk. Dello Russo has been talking with landowners about putting voluntary conservation easements on about 16,000 acres of private land that might be inundated by mild spring flooding. So far, she says, the response has been good. She sells the program as flood protection, she says, because even if the mainstem Rio Grande never floods again, two of its tributaries - the Rio Salado and the Rio Puerco - occasionally do, and any houses in the floodplain will be right in the water's path.

Flooding will surely meet resistance from farmers elsewhere in the Middle Valley, who see floods and bosque restoration as competition for scarce water. But Paul Tashjian, a hydrologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service's Bosque Hydrology Group, points out that the native bosque uses considerably less water than a forest of exotics. An acre of tamarisk at Bosque del Apache uses four acre-feet of water in a year, while a study done in the 1960s found that Russian olive can suck up seven or eight acre-feet, Tashjian says. A patchwork of native cottonwoods and willows, he says, uses 2.6 acre-feet.

Restoring the forest will also save money spent on firefighting and flood control, adds Tashjian. Increasingly, agencies, local officials and ordinary citizens are realizing that a wilder river and a revived bosque make sense economically as well as ecologically. The biggest hurdle is the state of New Mexico, he says, which fears that restoring the river will hamper its ability to deliver water to Texas, as it is required to do under a 1939 compact.

Santa Fe conservationist and writer William deBuys, who chaired Domenici's original Bosque Conservation Initiative, says that without leadership from Washington, D.C., real progress on an ecosystem level will remain out of reach.

"If we're going to resolve this thing, we're going to need leadership from the highest level - the kind of leadership that (former Interior Secretary) Babbitt showed for the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River Delta," he says. "So far, (Interior Secretary Gale) Norton has not indicated that she is willing to make that commitment."

In the meantime, the bosque is in the hands of the people who live and work along the Rio Grande, many of whom are looking to the pueblos for progress.


Santa Ana is really cutting the way," says Paul Tashjian. "To have the pueblos just out there doing it gets people out of the planning mode and really gets them thinking about how this can happen."

Les Ramirez, who worked as a special counsel to Secretary Babbitt, specializing in Indian water rights and ecological restoration, says the pueblos are creating a model for the whole Rio Grande Basin - a model that might someday lead to a series of refuges, "pearls on a string."

"If you're talking about returning the river to what it was 100 years ago, then I don't know where you get the money to do that. I don't know where you get the political will to do that," he says. "But if we can bring the Pueblo Santa Ana back into ecological function, and that can be replicated along the basin, perhaps you don't need to do a massive program that would take us back to the 1800s."

By taking a broad ecosystem approach, Ramirez says, the people along the Rio Grande can avoid fights down the road over endangered species. That is perhaps one reason federal agencies - and New Mexico's congressional delegation - have been quick to get behind the Santa Ana Pueblo. "They are looking for a big success that they can build on," says Ramirez.

"The problem isn't really who owns the water. The problem is really water management," he says. "It's really a matter of getting the major water users and sovereigns in the basin to come together and say, 'What can we do to use water more efficiently?' We all depend on this thin ribbon of water."

The timing is critical, says Gina Dello Russo, who remembers picking wild asparagus and hongos, or mushrooms, under the old cottonwoods on her grandparents' farm near Socorro. It's critical because the bosque - and the memory of what it once was - is fading.

"The grandparents (in communities up and down the Rio Grande) still remember going down and having picnics by the river, and how cool it used to be under the cottonwoods," she says. "Once we lose these old folks that actually have that memory and that connection, we'll have lost that chance to convince people that there was something beautiful called the cottonwood bosque."
Greg Hanscom is HCN's associate publisher.

This story is funded by the McCune Foundation.

    •    Todd Caplan, Santa Ana Pueblo, 505/867-0615;
    •    Beth Janello, Sandia Pueblo, 505/771-5080;
    •    Deb Hibbard, Rio Grande Restoration, 505/266-3609;
    •    Paul Tashjian, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 505/248-7958;
    •    Gina Dello Russo, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, 505/835-1828.


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