Cover Stories

The Fire, the Flood and the Future

As recent fires jeopardize New Mexico’s already scarce water supply; experts eye policy changes

Jennifer Lindline, an environmental geologist and head of the Water Resources program at New Mexico Highlands University, sat in a meeting for the school’s 2022 Earth Day celebration.

“It was about 11 or 12 that day when you started to see that cloud descending on the city,” she says. “And then people’s phones started blowing up.”

That was the day the Calf Canyon Fire “blew up and started marching north,” Lindline says, then merged with the Hermit’s Peak Fire to become the largest blaze in state history. Highlands faculty, students and staff who live north of Las Vegas raced home to prepare for anticipated evacuations. Lindline’s vehicle shook, buffeted by “demon winds,” as she drove home that night amid a haze of smoke.

She returned to school the next week to stories of friends, colleagues and community members whose homes had burned. By the following weekend, the fire was edging in on the city, threatening the United World College, Montezuma and the Creston Ridge. Evacuees flooded Highlands from UWC, and the university president moved the rest of the school year online.

Meanwhile, things changed for Lindline and her two interns, Megan Begay and Letisha Mailboy, who are both Diné. They’ve been monitoring the Upper Pecos weekly since 2019, but the ritual took on new significance as the river choked with soot and debris.

For Pecos residents, the river is everything. It provides drinking water all the way from its headwaters in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains nearly to the Texas border. It’s the lifeblood of the village’s economy, fueling tourism, recreation and fishing. It irrigates farms and ranches, and feeds 55 acequias in the Pecos area. Lives, livelihoods and traditional practices depend on a healthy river.

Wildfire brings a host of consequences for a watershed. Some are widely-known, like flooding and contamination from ash, debris and fire retardant chemicals. But some are more subtle and insidious: The same mechanism that causes flash flooding after a fire allows less water to seep back into aquifers from rivers, streams and other above-ground flows. That means fire can have a lasting impact on New Mexico’s already scarce groundwater supply. Lindline and other water experts believe the state needs to start studying this phenomenon to inform policy and fire management techniques down the line as climate change makes two things certain: more frequent, more intense fires and less water.

Lindline, Begay and Mailboy visit the Pecos weekly to test its oxygen content, pH levels and turbidity. They meet on a bridge on Hwy. 223, and usually wade out to a grassy tussock toward the center of the river to use water-quality meters and collect samples.

The week of July 4, though, the river had swollen to submerge their usual vantage point, and it would have been dangerous to venture far from the bank. They clamber through willow thickets, squelching through mud and standing water where the river spread from recent rains.

“About 10% higher than last week,” Lindline notes, wading ankle deep in the shallows. She points out the soot particles darkening the water and collecting in zebra stripes along the banks. The team started monitoring the Pecos in 2019 when a mining company proposed an ore-extracting operation that could have contaminated the water. They wanted to establish a baseline as evidence in the fight against the mine, which is ongoing.

“Every summer it’s a new threat,” Lindline says: The mine, overenthusiastic hikers and campers escaping their houses during the pandemic and now, the fire.

She explains the immediate repercussions of fire to a watershed: Trees and vegetation that normally intercept rainfall, lessening its impact on soils, disappear, leaving hillsides and streambanks vulnerable to erosion. Floodplains change, and rivers and streams can start to take unusual paths, causing flooding and disrupting aquatic habitats.

The severity of these impacts depends on the nature of the fire.

“All fire is not the same,” says Amina Sena, forest hydrologist for the Santa Fe National Forest and Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) implementation team lead. Low-intensity fire is a powerful tool that rejuvenates landscapes, making way for new growth, she says. She’s already witnessing this process at work as low-intensity areas of the burn scar—including her own property—see a “vigorous rebirth of vegetation.”

But in high-intensity areas it’s a different story. When a fire burns hot it “cooks” the soil, creating a “tin-roof effect” where water no longer filters into the soil but skims across the surface, running off and causing flooding. A wildfire guide produced by the New Mexico Forestry Division calls post-fire flooding “the biggest threat from wildfire.” It explains that this type of flooding usually happens during monsoon season when there’s heavy, localized rainfall on a burned area where the ground can’t absorb the rain. That’s been borne out in recent weeks as communities across the state and the Navajo Nation have seen major flooding take out bridges, wash out roads and damage homes and property.

Watershed impacts are contingent on the soil burn severity (SBS) from a fire. BAER team maps show that out of 40,150 acres analyzed for the Pecos River and parts of its tributaries, 50% are unburned or very low, 16% are moderate and 34% are high SBS.

The burn intensity of this year’s fire determines the danger to the watershed and the people, wildlife and ecosystems that depend on it. Preliminary BAER team maps show that about one-third of the land affected by the fire is severely burned. Sena calls the intensity pattern of the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire a “mosaic.”

In some areas that burned hot, she says, there were dead conifers and debris piled 8 feet deep. Buildups like that can’t happen if the Forest Service wants to prevent more catastrophic fires, she says. The Hermit’s Peak Fire was caused by a US Forest Service controlled burn that “escaped” and tore through this dense debris, ultimately devouring over 340,000 acres. It merged with the Calf Canyon Fire, which was also started by the Forest Service as a pile burn that stayed hot through snowfall and reignited, leading to wildfire. An internal review reveals the agency’s responsibility:

“Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground we have never encountered,” reads a preface to the report from agency chief Randy Moore. “We know these conditions are leading to more frequent and intense wildfires. Drought, extreme weather, wind conditions and unpredictable weather changes are challenging our ability to use prescribed fire as a tool to combat destructive fires.”

Sena says the Forest Service has a lot of work to do to acknowledge the effects of climate change, not to mention mitigate against them when it comes to wildfires. That starts with going through the National Environmental Policy Act to create planning documents and modern treatments on a far larger scale. Currently, they’re looking to reduce fuel loading across the Santa Fe National Forest.

“As we see the scale of these catastrophic fires, we need to join hands with our communities, with our partners and nonprofits, and really figure out how we can do this work at the pace and scale that we need to with the issues of climate change and times of drought,” Sena says.

Matthew Hurteau, a forest ecologist studying forest-fire-climate interactions, says it’s crucial that the Forest Service doesn’t abandon controlled burns in the face of public scrutiny. As Sena points out, low-intensity fires are key to a healthy forest and decrease the likelihood of fires like Hermit’s Peak getting out of control. Rather than ceasing burns entirely, Sena, Hurteau and other experts say forest managers should take into account New Mexico’s increasingly hot, dry climate when making decisions about appropriate conditions for a controlled burn.

The east side of the Sangres that burned in Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon hadn’t seen fire or treatment in years, Hurteau says, which allowed the fire to rip through the forest unchecked. And there are plenty more untreated areas across the state.

“I spend a lot of time running around New Mexico for my research projects,” Hurteau says, “and there’s very few areas that I get into where I think, whoa, this area’s in great shape.”

The worst thing that could happen for New Mexico’s fire future, he says, would be a politically motivated halt of controlled burns. However, public faith in the Forest Service’s ability to actually control those burns has been badly shaken by this year’s wildfires.

The Forest Service plans to conduct extensive cutting and burning of vegetation on 38,680 acres in forests east of Santa Fe over the next 10 to 15 years as part of the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project. The agency conducted an Environmental Assessment that supports this plan but some Santa Fe residents and county commissioners are pushing back, calling for a thorough Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and assessment of risks, costs and benefits.

On July 12, the Santa Fe County board of commissioners passed a resolution urging the Forest Service to thoroughly review the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project and fuels treatments on the Santa Fe National Forest, and to consider alternative treatments in the face of climate change, putting a pause on intentional burns in Santa Fe County until these reviews are complete.

Once a Forest—a Santa Fe community group that advocates for living forests and community-inclusive decision-making about forest health—has gathered over 1,200 signatures on a petition urging “a full environmental review of plans to cut down and burn forests near town.”

New Energy Economy, the Santa Fe Forest Coalition and other organizations have endorsed the petition.

Sam Hitt, founder and president of the Santa Fe Forest Coalition, says federal fire policy needs to change drastically to account for climate change. Rather than putting energy and resources towards clearing flammable material and doing “intentional burns”—the term Hitt prefers—people should focus on reducing emissions that fuel climate change and protecting homes and structures with “home-hardening” measures.

“The whole notion of clearing vegetation and burning to reduce fuels is not working because these fires are driven by climate—extreme temperatures, wind, low humidity, intense dryness,” Hitt says. “We’ve had cycles of dryness in the Southwest for thousands of years, but the current cycle is being aggravated by climate disruption, by the pollution that we’re putting into the atmosphere.”

Hitt contends that all fire—low and high intensity—provides ecosystem benefits. The tragedy is when wildfire destroys homes and property.

Mariel Nanasi, New Energy Economy’s executive director, said the reason for a full EIS is “to evaluate and critically assess the environment in which actions are taken.”

“This isn’t a senseless check-the-box situation,” Nanasi says. “As the changing climate requires, we need leaders in government to take bold action to prevent catastrophic damage and safeguard lives and livelihoods, not rote decision-makers bogged down with outdated status quo thinking that brought us to the precarious situation.”

The ramifications of outdated forest management policies and climate-fueled wildfires are far-reaching.

“Wildfires aren’t new to the region,” Lindline says. “It’s the size and scope of this wildfire complex that’s just tremendous.” She’s already looking ahead to the hidden dangers of repeated, intense wildfires on the watershed. One long-term impact she’s concerned about is aquifer recharge.

When burned soil becomes “hydrophobic”—unable to absorb water—it can cause flash flooding, but may also have a long-term effect on New Mexico’s water supply. Typically, water seeps back into underground aquifers from rivers, streams and precipitation, replenishing the supply of water that’s underground and isn’t as vulnerable to losses through evaporation as surface water is. But when soil becomes water-repellant after a fire, it impedes aquifer recharge.

“If more water runs off, there’s less recharging the aquifers and less available for drinking, supporting land uses and next year’s forest fire fights,” Lindline says.

It also means watersheds don’t provide the ecosystem services they normally do—including water storage and purification. Lindline hopes to study this phenomenon more closely with Begay and Mailboy, setting up soil-moisture meters and testing field methods to monitor the situation and inform decision-making around wildfire and water management. Quantifying wildfire’s impact on New Mexico water supplies is difficult, but the theory behind the phenomenon is widely accepted.

The devastation wrought by the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire comes amid a year-long battle by the Upper Pecos Watershed Association and other community groups to protect the waters of the Pecos River. They petitioned the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission to designate the waters of the upper Pecos as Outstanding National Resource Waters last year. With the commission’s July 12 vote, the river now carries the highest level of protection against degradation under the state of New Mexico’s Water Quality Standards.

What makes the Upper Pecos so special? “The fact that it’s untouched, that it’s almost primal—nothing has developed up here,” says Lela McFerrin, vice president of the association and longtime resident of the Upper Pecos Canyon.

The watershed has supported ecosystems and communities for centuries, the petition noted, fostering traditional farming, ranching and cultural practices. The Upper Pecos is also home to New Mexico’s state fish—the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Because Pecos’ economy relies on outdoor recreation and fishing rather than a more polluting industry—and thanks to the stewardship of Pecos communities—the waters have remained largely pure.

The designation means current uses of the river—irrigation, grazing, domestic use, recreation and other traditional uses— continue, but permits submitted for new activities such as housing development or exploratory mining will be more carefully scrutinized. The decision applies to the Upper Pecos Watershed, which stretches roughly from its headwaters in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the Village of Pecos.

McFerrin and the association fought for the designation for a year, along with the Village of Pecos, the New Mexico Acequia Association, San Miguel County and acequia farmer Ralph Vigil, who owns and operates Molino de la Isla organic farm in East Pecos. “It’s a half a million acres of forest and wilderness that we’re trying to protect,” McFerrin says. “That’s where clean water comes from—the forest.”

McFerrin sat on her porch on a recent day, chatting with SFR and watching the river run dark brown with soot and debris. “It’s getting darker by the day,” McFerrin says.

As Pecos stared down a days-long thunderstorm forecast over the Fourth of July weekend, residents braced for flooding. McFerrin’s house is set back from the river on an embankment, but she worries about her neighbors in low-lying areas of the canyon who were busy creating barricades with sandbags, digging diversion channels and building up embankments to help channel water and debris away from homes, farms and ranches.

“We’re hitting a period right now that’s gonna be dangerous,” McFerrin says. “And even as wet as it is, we could have a new fire start.”

Ash and debris change the river’s pH levels and oxygen content, which can harm fish, clogging their gills and damaging aquatic habitats. This bears special consequences for the Upper Pecos, where angling is a major economic driver. Kirk Patten, chief of fisheries with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, estimates that fishing brings $27 million per year to the Pecos area.

“It is important to note that this economic impact has not been entirely lost,” Patten writes in a July 6 email to SFR. He notes that angling destinations are likely to have shifted to areas that are open or have better conditions.

The Lisboa Springs Fish Hatchery—the state’s oldest—closed due to fire restrictions and likely won’t reopen until the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District does, Patten says.

Patten has seen fish dying off in the burn scars. He went into the fire area in June with New Mexico Department of Game and Fish biologists and Forest Service representatives to try and rescue the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. They saved about 400 fish. But in some areas that normally have abundant trout, there were none left alive.

“We saw fish that were dead, presumably from the ash getting passed through the creek,” Patten said.

The surviving fish they rescued are temporarily housed in fishless streams, at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and at the Seven Springs Fish Hatchery in Jemez Springs. How long the population takes to recover, Patten says, depends on the severity of the burn and flooding.

“We’ve had some cases where it took several years to recover,” he says. “In other cases streams are fit to put fish back in within a year or two.”

Once the ranger district opens to the public, they’ll be able to start restocking the river. Patten says the burn in the Upper Pecos is significant, but not to the point he expects to see massive fish die-offs.

Lindline hasn’t seen major die-offs yet this year either, but she worries it’s still coming.

“All the water-quality parameters are looking OK, but they’re slowly climbing,” and it appears that’ll continue, Lindline says. When her team went out in the last week of June, they could see soot particles in the water and even smell an acrid, sinister reek.

Pecos residents saw flooding and contamination following the Trampas and Tres Lagunas fires in 2002 and 2013. Residents remember watching the river run black, and the watershed took years to recover. Groups like the Upper Pecos Watershed Association and the Forest Service undertook restoration projects to revegetate the forest, restoring landscapes and protecting them from further erosion. Those projects are now beginning yet again, and Sena, the hydrologist, says there is much to do.

Once the immediate, life-threatening dangers of fire and flooding have passed, her focus will turn to recovery efforts like reseeding and mulching the burn scar, stabilizing river flows and watersheds with rock structures to hold soil in place.

It’s a long-term job. Sena says her heart is in the work, because she and her family, friends and neighbors live in the burn scar. Her father lost his home, and her own property was damaged.

“We all need to put our energy into restoring the landscape so that it can be as resilient as possible in the face of drought and climate change,” Sena says. “It’s time to roll up our sleeves, and get to work.”

DURING THE FIRE: By the Numbers

“Water is just one tool in a big toolbox that the Forest Service uses to fight fires,” Jennifer Lindline, head of the Water Resources Program at New Mexico Highlands University, says, noting that fire crews rely heavily on retardant drops, clearing flammable material, building fire breaks and other measures. “As much as we see them scooping up water in those buckets, that’s only a short term impact on water resources. I think this flooding runoff, less infiltration and less recharge is gonna be the longer term impact on these water systems.” The Forest Service provided approximate water use numbers for the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire fight:

- 2.95 million gallons from Lake Isabel

- 8.74 million gallons from dip sites including Storrie Lake, Circle Lake, Lost Lake, Morphy Lake, Long Horn Pond, Tecolote Creek and Cow Creek

- 15+ more dipsites supported with water tenders filled from water sources such as fire department hydrants, local ranch wells and community wells

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect information about the status of a proposed mining operation near Terrero. That’s been corrected.

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