The City of Santa Fe has signed on to a deal with the state to share the costs of managing forests near the city watershed in an effort to prevent catastrophic wildfire there. The measure saw unanimous approval from councilors, despite a heated public comment over fire science and forest management, laced with a dose of name-calling and finger-pointing.

What's labeled as a grant/loan agreement sees the New Mexico Water Trust Fund granting $135,000 and loaning $15,000, for a total of $150,000, with a 0.25 percent annual administrative fee and zero interest on the loan, which the water fund already has sufficient funds to immediately repay. As of August, work was completed on 5,500 acres of 7,300 acres planned for fire mitigation in the watershed, and the city was seeking to secure funds for the final push.The measure aims at protecting the watershed near Nichols and McClure reservoirs, which provide as much as 50 percent of the city’s drinking water. Public comment absorbed the bulk of the time the bill was discussed, with those in favor of it speaking to their concerns for catastrophic fire that would affect the city and its residents, and those opposed questioning the effects of the prescribed burns. “It’s not a question of it these forests will burn but when. These are fire-adapted forests. They burned for thousands of years before colonists got here,” Zander Evans, research director at Forest Stewards Guild, told councilors. “We really have a choice about how they burn, not if they burn.”Commenters disagreed over the nature of a healthy forest and the consensus reached by scientists, but also questioned the city’s transparency in putting forward a bill that’s largely about fire management but uses language that describes it as a water project.“There is actually very good scientific consensus that thinning and prescribed fire is very effective at reducing the severity of fire,” Evans said. “Not only are scientific studies stacked quite high in proving this point, but we can go out on the landscape and see it in wildfire. There’s excellent on-the-ground evidence.”For evidence, he pointed to those high-severity fires that come down from mountains where there has been little fire mitigation to the wildland-urban interface areas, where cities and homeowners have undertaken efforts to thin trees to create a defensible space. Representatives from the Santa Fe Watershed Association, Santa Fe-Pojoaque Soil and Water Conservation District and Santa Fe Fat Tire Society also spoke in favor of the project.“I know that these days, prescribed burns are typically called water projects or water protection projects or restoration,” said Jan Boyer, who spoke against the bill. “I’m opposed to the prescribed burns for a variety of reasons. My request to you all would be to learn a lot more about the toxicity issues involving the prescribed burns.”Boyer also cited concerns about the carbon dioxide released through burns and the additional costs the city might face with ongoing management associated with a grant/loan agreement that has a 20-year lifetime. She returned to the microphone as the public comment period was ending to ask, “All the people who are getting paid to be involved in the fires keep saying, ‘There will be a fire.’ I really begin to wonder, are they planning on setting it?”Her comments were interrupted by an outcry. As to those objections that this is billed as a water project when it’s a forest management project, newly elected Councilor Renee Villarreal talked Alan Hook, water resources coordinator assistant for the city and the city staff member representing the bill, through explaining that because the grant came from the state water fund, the state dictated the language that applied, and that the city’s contribution, at least for the first three years of management, is expected to be about $10,000 annually.Hook noted that the city has several water supply options, but the watershed is one of the best. “This source, the reservoirs and our watershed, is our cheapest source because it’s our cleanest source,” Hook said. “Canyon Road is, per gallon, one of our cheapest sources and one of the treasures for the city.”

Councilor Joseph Maestas, acknowledging the contention surrounding the issue, asked that any prescribed burns be preceded with “a very robust public involvement process.”