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Grant County Commission hears watershed improvement presentation

Editor's Note: This is part 2 of a three-part series of articles covering the Grant County Commission work session on Tuesday, Feb. 25.

After the Grant County commissioners reviewed most of the regular meeting agenda for Thursday, Feb. 27, The Nature Conservancy and the New Mexico Forest Industries Association, which are working together to improve the watershed and forest health, gave a presentation.

Brent Racher, New Mexico Forest Industries Association president, said the motto of the group is: Behind every healthy forest is a healthy forest industry.

Laura McCarthy, Senior Policy Advisor for Fire & Forest Restoration, New Mexico, said The Nature Conservancy is pragmatic and practical.

She showed an image of a smoke cloud from the Las Conchas Fire. "Nobody likes to see this image," she said. "Our No. 1 concern is the increasing areas of high-severity burn that wipe out most vegetation and cause significant damage to the soils. Concern No. 2 is the floods, which make wildfire also a water quality issue. The floods cause property destruction, sedimentation and post-fire flooding and debris flows. There is a mass movement of burned soil into the water supply."

Concern No. 3 is water quality. "The Las Conchas Fire contaminated the water supplies of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, at a direct cost to agriculture and municipalities."

Racher said he knew "none of this is news to any of you in Grant County. Three of our five large rivers in the state were running ash last summer."

Concern No. 4 is the cost. The Las Conchas Fire cost $40 million to fight. McCarthy said the University of New Mexico did study on the full cost to the economy, which was estimated at $128 million to $232 million, including visits to the emergency room by those with asthma and loss to tourism. "The money for fire suppression, if used for a solution, would be better used."

Racher said from 2009-2012, the New Mexico Economic Development Department estimated a $1.5 billion impact to the state. 

"We are proposing proactive management to scale up the strategies to meet the scale of severe wildfire," Racher said. 

"First is thinning of the forests, then stream restoration, flood mitigation and fire management," he said. "Flood mitigation is mostly post-fire. Right now, we are reacting to the fires, and putting less into management. We are so far behind. Even if we start today, it will take 10 to 20 years to catch up. Right now, we need to do flood mitigation better. Maintaining the thinning is important for fire management."

New Mexico has forest action plans and state and regional water plans, but "we need large-scale solutions. We treat 8,000 to 10,000 acres a year. We need to be at 50,000 to 100,000 thousand acres treated a year."

Commissioner Gabriel Ramos said he was glad to see this getting done.

"We know what needs to be done," Racher confirmed. "We are trying to find the path forward."

McCarthy said TNC has developed a model for a Water Fund. "We have 12 in South America. We have a pilot project in Santa Fe since 2009, from Albuquerque northward on the Rio Grande. Industry is part of the solution to use the woody material, but you can't grow industry right away."

TNC is doing watershed studies:

  • Where are the highest-risk forests and streams?
  • How much restoration treatment is needed? and
  • How much will it cost?

Bernalillo County paid for debris flow modeling and risk prediction in the Sandia and Manzano mountains.

"Everything was at high risk for debris flow for any rain, even a small one, so we changed it to a 20- to 30-year flood to show the highest risk areas," Racher said.

"Mixed conifer is the highest risk," McCarthy said. "Another thing to consider, is with the forest treatments, we can increase snowpack and water yield, if we open up the forests.  The snow doesn't stay on the trees and evaporate. The trees that remain shade the snow on the ground and the snowpack persists further into spring.

"After a burn, there is no shading, so the sun and the wind take the snowpack down to 50 percent," she said. "Studies are ongoing, with a rapid one to be available in a couple of weeks and others delving into more detail with UNM and the Bureau of Reclamation."

"Forest treatment does not create new water, but it allows watersheds to function, so the existing water rights have the opportunity to be filled," Racher said.

He went on to explain that 70 percent of wood by-product with forest treatments is low-quality, basically biomass, with about 20 bone-dry tons per acre. "We can make the sawmills function with 30 percent of the thinned trees. We start growing businesses in the community with 300 to 600 new jobs. We should have 1,100 to 1,300 permanent jobs statewide."

Racher showed a list of possibilities for use of the thinned wood from biomass to shavings, poles and posts, mulch and compost to biofuels, electricity and thermal heating and cooling on an industrial scale. "While moving this wood, we are creating jobs in the community."

McCarthy said many diverse stakeholders are participating in the plan, including water groups and utilities, the U.S. Forest Service, Reclamation, and the Bureau of Land Management.

"Business organizations are supportive," she continued. "The Acequia Association, universities, recreation and sporting groups, as well as the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission, which is putting money into studies. Others are the NM Economic Development Department, private lands associations, the national labs, corporations, who were the first donors to the Water Fund, and the Department of Insurance. We want to determine how the county commissions can get involved, as well as the irrigation districts, the pueblos and tribes."

"The Rio Grande is where we started and studies are underway," Racher said. "The studies are being put together statewide, with the comprehensive draft plan to be ready in June and the final in July of this year. We are using a multi-source funding approach. We, private industry, need to see stability and then we will invest."

Grant County Planner Anthony Gutierrez said the county has done mitigation. "Our largest obstacles are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which I noticed is not on your list of partners. Fish and Wildlife worries about critical habitat. You can put all this work together, and this agency can put a stop to all of this."

"Good point," McCarthy said.

"We don't have all the answers," Racher said. "As for the endangered species, the departments are starting to understand the biggest threat to habitat is catastrophic wildfire."

McCarthy showed a list of multi-source funding:

  • Approach The Nature Conservancy, which is starting a Water Fund for northern New Mexico, with the money to be used as match money;
  • The state Western Area Water Supply Project fund is for treatment and economic development;
  • Local, municipal and tribal matching funds for treatment;
  • Investment in wood processing infrastructure; and
  • Federal applications for hazardous fuels reduction, which equals about $12 million to the state annually.

"We must leverage private investment," Racher said. "It has not been leveraged. We have to determine how to move the state to coordinated investment into the process. The way to get money to the local areas is to put skin in the game. If we come up with money at the state and local level, the regional forester has said he will bring in more federal money."

He gave an example of Flagstaff, Ariz., which passed a $10 million bond to protect the residents. "A lot of people said the feds need to fix it, but we might have to wait forever."

"The NMFIA sees community entities coming together," Racher said. "We, at the Legislature this year, started laying the groundwork for state help. Two memorials passed unanimously in both houses—House Memorial 80 and Senate Memorial 95.  What it comes down to is the Legislature wants, in the interim session, to develop a long-term funding plan coordinated within the communities and in state and federal entities. I would like Grant County and this part of the state to be at the table."

Gordon West, who owns several businesses using forest products, said the presentation was "excellent. You are spot-on. A lot of us involved in this for decades need to be involved. I thank Ramos for forming the eco-watershed group."

"We are already targeting areas we want to address to protect the citizens," Ramos said. "Keep it touch and we can work together."

County Manager Jon Paul Saari pointed out that at the federal level, the counties lost the payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) for a while, because the federal government, instead of coming up with a solution, put the PILT money toward firefighting.

"Preventive maintenance is key," Ramos said.

Commissioner Ron Hall thanked the presenters. "We see the issues. We heat our house with a pellet stove, but we have to go to Arizona to buy pellets. I'm excited to see a plan and action."

"We didn't come with a specific ask," McCarthy said. "At some point, in June or July, we will send something in writing."

"Please work with the counties before you go to the New Mexico Association of Counties," Commission Chairman Brett Kasten requested. "Did either or both of you come by way of highway 152 over the Black Range? You can see our close burned areas."

Racher said he came from Corona and plans to return by way of highway 152. McCarthy said she came through Reserve, but may return over the Black Range.

"I love your proactive approach," Kasten said. "However, I'm not sure even 100,000 acres a year is enough for our forest. Grant County is the definition of mixed conifer. You talked about the northern part of the state. How can we get the largest national forest in the state involved?"

"We need to get you to do it here," Racher said. "Businesses need the impetus to invest. The Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the counties, as well as the irrigation districts, we need them coordinating on long-term funding plans."

"When you talk about state coordination, are you talking about matching funds from here for the Water Fund?" Kasten asked.

"The OSE and the state forester need that coordination," McCarthy said. "Creating a fund is flexible, as is the use of the money for treatment or even NEPA. In Ruidoso, they are talking about creating a Water Fund. We have a lot of information on how water funds work. It's deceptively simple. We will have statewide data layers and there will be seven or eight circles on the map. This area will be one."

"Does a government agency or a private entity set up the Water Fund?" Kasten asked.

"Private donors give to the Water Trust Fund, which is state, but they don't see accountability," McCarthy said.

"The Water Fund model doesn't have you throwing the money into one pot," Racher said. "Everyone is looking at leveraging everybody's money long-term. How do we leverage private money? It doesn't make business sense to make a 10-year investment, when you are working on a one-year state or federal commitment."

Kasten asked Gutierrez if he thought the Freeport-McMoRan Environmental Fund could be tapped.

"Yes, and get the New Mexico Economic Development Department to accept a public/private partnership," Gutierrez said.

"I like a man who talks about public/private partnerships," Racher said. "I think that's how it's going to happen."

Kasten said: "The state and the feds are pushing mandates down to us. We will give this information to the Eco-Watershed Committee to vet it."

Racher pointed out that there are multiple jurisdictions in the forest. "You have to pull it together at the Gila National Forest level."

Ramos noted that the Southwest County Commissioners Alliance is made up of five counties across the forest. "I'm getting excited."

The next article will cover county reports.

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