When the Public Service Company of New Mexico gave The Nature Conservancy the emptied basins where two city dams once held a frontier town’s supply of water, the gift’s quality posed a mystery: Just how much could be made of a bare stretch of earth with a bathtub ring that’s still visible, decades later, as a line where the piñóns stop growing?
“These pond ecosystems have been almost completely removed from the desert Southwest,” says Terry Sullivan, state director of The Nature Conservancy. “It’s pretty easy to remove these features, and it’s almost impossible to recreate them.”
The conservancy started with a little water and a goal of restoring the historic route of the river, and everything else came to it, he says, including beaver families that, by anyone’s best guess, migrated downriver to build dams and create stepped ponds ringed in cattails that are topped on summer mornings with red-winged blackbirds. Deer, osprey, a reintroduced northern leopard frog, and even mountain lions and bobcats have also arrived, all of them clustering around this rare beacon of water in the Southwestern landscape.
“If you have the water and you have the seeds, a whole suite of plants and animals will start to come,” Sullivan says.
The microclimate shifted from a baked and sunny expanse to a bosque and wetlands with a shady, meandering path past mushrooms, the summer snow of cottonwood seeds, orange mallow, milkvetch and penstemon.
And all of it is fed by a trickle of a river that runs over the top of a series of stones stacked next to a diversion gate. Close the gate, and the water backs up, flowing into the preserve instead of downstream to the acequia system. Leave it open, and the preserve runs dry. Which is what happened in May this year, when a third lock appeared among the two already on the gate, which belonged to the city and The Nature Conservancy. Robert Findling, director of land protection and stewardship for the conservancy, spotted the lock and called the city to ask about it, but he never got a call back. So two weeks later, he hiked up with bolt cutters and removed it.
“Thus began the Milagro beaver pond war,” Sullivan jokes.
It turned out, the third lock belonged to the city, installed over suspicions that someone was changing the gate to channel more water into the preserve. But that had never been communicated to the conservancy, Sullivan says. When it was cut, the city assumed the conservancy had become adversarial and responded by bringing in a dump truck and sandbags and completely blocking the flow-over dam to the preserve, cutting off its water supply.
It’s not unusual to go without water for a few days this time of year, Sullivan says, but after a while, they started to panic and assumed, having heard nothing else, that the city was trying to cut off water to the preserve. Then someone—both parties say they have no idea who—responded to the presence of the sandbags by moving them to block the city’s outtake, cutting off water to downstream acequias and the river in an act of “vandalism.” Someone also appears to have used a shovel to widen the channel to the preserve.
All of this unfolded over May and early June. It was June 23 by the time the city’s governing body held a legal session to discuss a course of action in private, and June 28 before the mayor, city attorney and Sullivan met to sort out what at that point had blossomed into a massive chain of miscommunications.
"We realized, OK, this is ridiculous. We’ve made a mountain out of a beaver dam. "
“It wasn’t until I sat down with Javier Gonzales and Kelley Brennan and she showed us pictures … and I emphasized to the city that we hadn’t done that—that was the big ‘Aha!’ moment,” Sullivan says. “We realized, OK, this is ridiculous. We’ve made a mountain out of a beaver dam.”
Had they all made the three-quarter-mile hike from the parking lot to the little dam, the pool behind which is barely knee-deep, to take a look at what was happening and talk, the trouble might have stopped there, Sullivan says. Instead, they weathered an ugly series of finger-pointing over water theft and deprivation, lawsuit saber-rattling and closed-door meetings that only served to heighten concerns that the city was cutting off water to the preserve.
To analyze the situation and receive direction from the governing body took more than six weeks, which city spokesperson Matt Ross called “pretty speedy and efficient.”
“We are confident and pleased that both parties are ready to put this issue behind us and forge a true partnership around a collaborative vision, not just for this section of the river but for the entire corridor,” Ross wrote in a press release. “This was a problem that arose primarily from communication breakdowns following acts of vandalism committed by unknown persons at a flow gate. It led to unfortunate accusations of water theft on one side and of a desire to cut off all water flow into the preserve on the other, accusations that were unfounded and only served to escalate an unnecessary conflict.”
When asked by the mayor to summarize the content of an executive session discussion of the issue during the June 29 City Council meeting, City Attorney Kelley Brennan characterized the conversation with The Nature Conservancy as “very cordial.”
“We had agreement on most of, actually I’d say on all the points, and agreed to work on any agreements that we needed to make any lack of clarity clear,” she said. The parties planned to meet again in the next week.
The events prompted Councilor Joe Maestas to suggest City Manager Brian Snyder establish or reiterate the need for voicemail etiquette, including messages that clarify if someone will be out of the office, and refer the public to a second option who may be available in absence of the person initially dialed. Snyder replied that he already stresses that practice with city employees.
“It’s sort of unfortunate, because it really just came down to miscommunication,” Sullivan says. “But it puts the preserve on the top of everyone’s mind.”
Now there’s a concern that the preserve will see almost too much attention.
There’s not a parking space left in the lot that serves the preserve and a portion of the Dale Ball trail system by 10 am on a Friday morning, though hikers disappear rapidly into willows that have grown to above head-height. Clusters of children from the Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary day camp (more than 4,000 students visited the preserve last year) vanish among the sagebrush, howling to find one another again.
“One of the big challenges we’re facing is that the preserve doesn’t get loved to death, and the vandalism is one sign of that,” Sullivan says.
Part of the solution could be to create similar ecosystems downriver, so people throughout the city have a little piece of water and shade close to their homes. The conservancy wants to roll the attention from this controversy into enthusiasm for making that vision a reality.
Ross echoes that interest on behalf of the city: “There’s a broad collaborative vision there about how we can work together with The Nature Conservancy as partners to move that forward—the health of the entire river corridor, not just this one section of the upper river.”
In the years since the Living River Ordinance was passed in 2012, the city has already seen its river revived. Before the ordinance, which calls for releasing 1,000 acre-feet of water into the river on wet or normal years, the riverbed was a veritable junkyard.
“It was a spot, and still is in places, where people threw their debris. There was sort of an ‘It’s just a ditch’ attitude to it,” says Andy Otto, executive director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association, which campaigned for the ordinance. Water in the riverbed, he says, has fueled care and concern over the resource.
“People will own it if they can see it,” Otto says.
He watched this dispute between the city and the conservancy with some trepidation.
“Our concerns were that the Living River Ordinance was not brought into this, or somehow relegated to a minor roll,” he says. “The Living River Ordinance of February 29, 2012, is a very valid document and can help guide us on this, so that’s what we’d like to see, as well as a full open discussion in public.”
But parts of the document are “not as detailed as they could be,” he concedes, and that includes specifying allocations to the preserve and to the acequias.
The ordinance is a good start, Sullivan says, but it may not do enough to restore the river in a “string of pearls” approach, with a few linked ecosystems like those found at the preserve. That’s primarily because it’s not stocked with enough money for the kind of infrastructure and water rights purchasing likely required.
It certainly hasn’t been enough to reconnect the Santa Fe River with the Rio Grande. Though how much water would be required to achieve that isn’t yet known, by some estimates, it would require two or three times the annual allotment now of 1,000 acre-feet.