Whose river is it?

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The initiative, introduced in January by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, has a dauntingly short timeline. There’s only a week left for public input, and six short weeks after that to draft a plan.

File photo: Karen Gram’s Cottonwood Valley Charter School class takes part in New Mexico Watershed Watch, making monthly trips to the Otero Street Riverine Park to measure stream flow, pH, water temperature and other factors. It’s a rare opportunity for students in Socorro to see the Rio Grande, and to splash in its waters.

The final plan, one that puts the Middle Rio Grande in the spotlight and in a position to compete for anticipated federal funding in the future, must be submitted to Salazar by July 1.

“We have to think broadly, be visionary,” Dave Simon said at the meeting.

Simon is the president of the Los Ranchos based company Ecothink. He’s working with an eight member committee appointed by Salazar that includes representatives from the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District on plan development.

Three of the committee members were at the Socorro session, including Oscar Simpson, who represents New Mexico Back Country Hunters and Anglers and New Mexico Back Country Horsemen.

“This is a critical opportunity to get people connected to the river,” Simpson said.

Simpson put his finger on the crux of the matter for some members of the general public, who feel access to the river is for the most part blocked by private landowners and government agencies such as the MRGCD.

In the Socorro Valley, the Save Our Bosque Task Force has created 13 “pocket parks,” more or less connected by rough trails, that provide people with some way to actually reach the river, but to the north and south it’s a different story.

Lack of Access

Kelly Voris, chief of the Abeytas Volunteer Fire Department, described having to get keys to be able to get through gates and fences in the event of fire in the bosque.

“On our end of the county, the bosque’s locked up by the MRGCD. You have to register to get a key,” Voris said. “I see huge difference between having parklike access here (in Socorro) and having to get a key up north.”

Mary Randall, a member of NM Back Country Horsemen, said she would like to see the riverine park system expanded but also sees the other side of the coin.

“The riverine parks collect an incredible amount of garbage. Where there isn’t motor access, there’s no trash, but the more people there are, the more trash there is, and more risk of fire,” Randall said.

Gina Dello Russo, an ecologist with Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and a member of SOBTF, said the pocket parks were an effort to address that problem, and were established based on where people were already going.

“The idea was to localize where people were accessing the river,” Dello Russo said. “To provide picnic tables, a fire pit, and clean out the understory to minimize fire risk.”

SOBTF represents, on a small scale, exactly the kind of vision the initiative is hoping to write large: a local partnership between public agencies and private citizens to come up with creative solutions to balance competing interests on the river.

In addition to creating parks and trails, the task force works with landowners on conservation easements and habitat restoration, and does what it can in the way of community outreach and education.

At a public input meeting on the initiative held a week earlier in Valencia County, SOBTF was held up as an example of what works, and the question was asked whether the SOBTF model could be applied outside the localized area of the Socorro Valley.

Competing interests

Dello Russo acknowledged a “push-pull with the conservancy district between access being good and access being a problem.”

However, there are other potentially contentious issues that will have to be addressed in any plan. Some of them are problems that arise with unmanaged access, such as damage caused to an already fragile ecosystem by illegal dumping and illegal grazing. Some of them have to do with fierce competition for a dwindling resource between farmers who rely on the river to irrigate their fields and environmentalists championing the cause of the silvery minnow and the willow fly-catcher.

And then, there are the birds. The Bosque del Apache NWR is one of the prime birding locations in the region, and as Simpson pointed out, birders bring a lot of money into the state. Maintaining the refuge as a jewel in the heart of New Mexico and sustaining a wetlands environment in the middle of an arid state is in itself a balancing act that puts some groups at odds with each other.

Add to that the public perception that the river is unsafe, unclean and largely inaccessible, and plan developers have their work cut out for them.

In the absence of recreational opportunities, groups like SOBTF and Friends of the Bosque have focused on educational outreach to connect people to the river, by developing and supporting programs for Socorro’s elementary students.

Educational Resource

Two of Socorro’s schools have partnered with different agencies to make the river into an outdoor classroom. San Antonio Elementary second-graders are immersed in a program called ECOLAB — Every Child Outside Learning About Bosque — thanks to a partnership between the school, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and Audubon New Mexico.

Students from Cottonwood Valley Charter School participate in clean-up days too, and take part in two different river projects, the annual Dia del Rio, or Rio Research Roundup, when they join dozens of other student groups in measuring the river’s vital signs, and the New Mexico Watershed Watch, where they to calculate and record factors such as volume and stream flow.

Bosque Conservation Day is another effort to get kids connected to the river, held once a year for all the fifth-graders in the community thanks to a concerted effort by Socorro Soil and Water Conservation District and a host of supporting agencies and individual volunteers.

The idea is to foster a feeling of involvement and caring for the river in Socorro’s youth, but as several people who attended the meeting pointed out, there isn’t enough of this kind of thing going on. Five of the seven schools in the district don’t take part in any kind of river or bosque ecology program.

By middle school and high school, fieldtrips to the Rio Grande are a thing of the past, and it’s not just in K-12 that the river is being under utilized as an educational resource, as attorney Tony Williams brought up.

Williams represents the Charles F. Headen Trust. The trust owns about 400 acres in what Williams called the “forgotten reaches” of the river, between the refuge and Elephant Butte.

Williams suggested that the initiative plan’s overall vision for the Middle Rio Grande should include a “more formal systematic involvement of the universities,” but he didn’t elaborate on what that might look like. As things stand, research on the river doesn’t appear to figure greatly at Tech, although the university graduates hydrologists and environmental engineers every year and owns hundreds of acres of riverfront property,

Muddy Waters

Williams made another comment that caused a lot of heads to nod, in describing the Middle Rio Grande as a “confusing mix of federal easements and private ownership” that “stymies creativity” and throws certain challenges in the way of a unified vision.

Federal easements aside, the subject of conservation easements for private landowners adds another dimension of complexity to an already confusing mix.

Doris Rhodes is a private landowner who’s trying to put conservation easements on about 350 acres of family land.

“It’s extremely difficulty to work with the government agencies,” Rhodes said. “We’ve been working on our easement for five years. I hope to see it happen within my lifetime.”

Talking with Rhodes, Dello Russo and Kathy Albrecht, who works with the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust, Simon teased out a few central themes. One was that there are more landowners interested in doing conservation easements than there is money.

Another was the need for a central resource to help those landowners navigate the process and cut through some of the government bureaucracy. Simon talked in terms of a more streamlined “one stop shopping” idea that would let people establish one contact, instead of having to go through three or five different agencies.

A third theme was a need for economic incentives to make conservation easements a viable alternative for landowners.

“Family farms and ranches are being chopped up and sold off, and the water rights sold,” Albrecht said. “People who are land rich and cash poor are finding it very difficult to preserve the family farm or ranch and keep it in the family, keep it from being developed.”

Albrecht said the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust has about 1400 acres that it’s working to put under easements, and is always interested in ways to leverage money.

In fact, one of the driving forces behind the initiative is the idea of leveraging, as Mike Hamman said at the start of the meeting.

Hamman is head of the Albuquerque area office of the Bureau of Reclamation, and one of Salazar’s initiative committee members.

“We’re dealing with a declining resource base. Budgets have been decreasing at federal, state and local levels,” Hamman said. “We’ve been tasked to work together in better leveraging resources.”

Government agencies aren’t the only ones with limited budgets. Socorro County Treasurer Genevie Baca said she was concerned that taxpayers would be asked to fund whatever projects the initiative comes up with. Baca asked how property owners would be affected, and whether each private landowner along the Middle Rio Grande would be contacted.

Given the short timeline for formulating a plan, Simon said, the answer is no.

“None of this is binding,” Simon said. “This is not an attempt to overlay any requirement on private lands. This is meant to be more of a vision project that outlines goals and looks at the big picture.”

Public Recreation

The big picture, as Mary Randall sees it, includes a 180-mile Rio Grande Trail that she could travel on horseback, with camping areas and sanitation facilities appropriately spaced along the way.

“I would like to be able to start at Elephant Butte and stop every night at a layover spot,” Randall said.

Randall’s husband Steve suggested that access to a multi-use trail could be granted at specific staging areas. He said the trail could utilize the MRGCD’s ditchbanks to minimize damage to the environment.

Simon asked how many people would be willing to pay to use a trail system like that, and almost every hand went up.

Other ideas floated were staging areas for tubing and paddle sports, and the development of more pocket parks for day use.

Other ideas included a website where people could find out how to get their kids down to the river, and developing ways to get the public more interested and involved in the fate of the river.

“This is about economic opportunity to the community and the state, about how are we going to reinvent the wheel and get people excited,” Simpson said. “How do you change the mindset to say we need recreation?”

Dello Russo mentioned hearing older community members talk about growing up at the river’s edge, and going swimming and fishing in it, and how people don’t think of the river that way anymore.

Landowner Cleto Vasquez was among the community members at the meeting who do think of the river as an essential part of their lives.

“I’m interested because I live there, I’m interested because I love the river,” Vasquez said.

Public Input

The committee has a two-fold challenge, in that it needs to develop a plan that will excite the interest of the Secretary of the Interior, and also get widespread public support. A plan that doesn’t address recreational and economic opportunities along with conservation efforts will do neither.

“We’ve had a disconnected conversation for too many years,” said Andrew Hautzinger, a hydrologist an America’s Great Outdoors coordinator with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “Right now, with this initiative, the ears of the federal government are wide open. They’re saying, where can we put our muscle to help?”

The deadline for suggestions is April 15. Public comments can be made in writing to middleriograndeplan@gmail.com or to dsimon@ecothink.org. Written comments can also be made via the internet, by going to www.middleriogrande.com, clicking the “Middle Rio Grande Conservation Initiative” icon, downloading a public comment form and mailing it to the address given on the form. Finally, members of the public are invited to call Dave Simon at 505-280-2319.

 


-- Email the author at sbarteau@dchieftain.com.