For the endangered Rio Gallinas, drastic and long-term investments are missing

By: - May 1, 2023 4:17 am
Mayordomo William Gonzales shows Lena Knudson with the Hermits Peak Watershed Alliance a newly erected fence barring visitors from the official headwater gates in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Mayordomo William Gonzales shows Lena Knudson with the Hermits Peak Watershed Alliance a newly erected fence barring visitors from the official headwater gates in Las Vegas, New Mexico. (Photo by Bryce Dix / KUNM)

It’s an uncomfortably gusty day in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where a group of farmers and conservationists meet to walk alongside the fast moving snowmelt gushing through the Rio Gallinas.

Walking in the group is Lea Knutson, founder and executive director of the Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance. She’s been working to protect and restore this river for more than a decade.

“I’m really concerned the river is disconnected from its flood plain,” she said. “That’s what keeps the floods from destroying Vegas or other infrastructure.”  

The Rio Gallinas is now on American Rivers’ list of most endangered rivers because of serious threats from the state’s largest ever wildfire in recorded history.

Orange sediment barriers stretch across the ice pond west of Las Vegas.
Orange sediment barriers stretch across the ice pond west of Las Vegas. (Photo by Bryce Dix / KUNM)

Started as two prescribed burns by the U.S. Forest Service, the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire scorched a majority of the upper Rio Gallinas watershed. Then, subsequent monsoon rain floods swept charred soil and vegetation into the water, causing a water emergency for the city of Las Vegas.

Generally, when a river floods, a floodplain serves as storage for massive quantities of water underground, which feeds a river gradually over time.

“And so, that’s what gets us through drought,” Knudson said.

But Knutson said the floodplain isn’t functional because of built up sediment and the loss of plants in the Upper Rio Gallinas watershed. The plants act as a filter for that sediment and serve as a barrier for flood pulses by driving water deep underground through their root systems.

Billions of dollars have been set aside for San Miguel and Mora County to recover in the wake of the fire. But, Knutson claims that cash is getting tied up in bureaucracy and short-term solutions.

The federal government accidentally burned down their houses, then made it hard to come home

“I’m not seeing many efforts on the ground and much dollars devoted to restoring the ability of our watersheds to function naturally,” she said.

That’s why she’s putting the river’s health into her own hands with a project dubbed “Rewinding the Gallinas,” where the alliance creates drainage channels, pools and diversions.

Without these projects, Knutson said drinking water, farming, fish, wildlife, and overall watershed functions will continue to be at risk.

Also walking is Rachel Ellis. She’s with American Rivers –– the very organization that labeled the river as one of the country’s most endangered.

As our group stops to gaze at the quick-moving water, Ellis chimes in to say that she wants a more collaborative, coordinated approach between the federal and state agencies when managing this watershed.

“And that those efforts are coordinated with the local communities who are directly impacted,” she said.

That’s why American Rivers is asking for participation in the New Mexico Fire and Water Summit scheduled for this summer, where a long-term management plan could potentially be hashed out.

Specifically, they want a community driven response that centers around nature-based solutions like floodplain restoration or man-made structures designed to mimic the form and function of a natural beaver dam.

“Hopefully, the response to the Rio Gallinas can be a model for our other rivers in New Mexico who face similar problems,” Ellis said.

An idle excavator sits at the headwater gate of the Rio Gallinas River. The equipment is used to clear sediment and debris from flood waters.
An idle excavator sits at the headwater gate of the Rio Gallinas River. The equipment is used to clear sediment and debris from flood waters. (Photo by Bryce Dix / KUNM)

By this time, others were trickling in to join our small group walk, including San Miguel County Commissioner Max Trujillo. He said people from across the state should be paying close attention to what’s happening in Las Vegas.

“People who haven’t been through this fire situation and what ensues are going to go through it at some point,” Trujillo said. “Because, it’s not a matter of if it happens, it’s a matter of when.”

For him, it’s time for federal and state agencies to step up and establish stronger policies and protocols while managing the Gallinas watershed and prescribed burning.

Emergency loans for fire victims approved months ago yet to be delivered. Also, no one has applied.

Not only does the Rio Gallinas account for 90% of the drinking water for the roughly 13,000 residents in the area, but acequia systems dating back at least to the 1840s feed on its water to irrigate crops.

Sitting nearby in a white pick-up truck was William Gonzales. He’s a fifth generation farmer and a mayordomo, which means he oversees an acequia. He said there’s a disconnect between the community and the agencies trying to help.

“If you tell somebody from New York City that you have an acequia system… Well, they might not even know what that acequia system is,” he said.

Gonzales has been working for 30 years to make sure the Gallinas water is shared equitably for use as drinking water and irrigation. Though, New Mexico’s largest blaze erased all of that hard work.

“That water is not simply a resource for us,” Gonzales said. “But it’s also everything that ties us together.”

While it’s unclear what the future holds for the community around the Gallinas, –– people will continue to fight to ensure their beloved river gets the resources it needs to nourish that community.

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