The Life Around Us

by Katherine Chilton

Photos by Kathy Chilton

The cottontail lives in our front yard under the spirea bushes where it has plenty of food, some water that collects on the top of our well housing, and significant protection. It ventures out most mornings, perhaps to vary its diet and look for the occasional carrot I put out for it.

A family of raccoons seems to be living in the street drain next to our sidewalk. I seldom see them, but they leave footprints on the steel bin in which I store birdseed. I painted a portrait of one and placed it on the tree that shades their cavernous home.

In the 48 years that we have lived here, I have seen ground squirrels only in the past 6 years. They seem to have taken over the place in spite of our dog that romps in the backyard and my efforts to block their ubiquitous holes. I had read that they do not like coffee grounds, so I regularly poured our used grounds down their holes. This caffeine boost may be why they use our trees, deck, windowsills, and fences as an active playground.

Audacious coyotes trot down our street gripping a prize neighborhood chicken or cottontail in their mouths. They have ventured onto our front porch. Fences seem to be no obstacles for them. We are gifted with multi-voice concerts in the evenings and early mornings. Most of the ones we see are robust. but once in a while we see a thin, mangy one. We hope that the plump ones are consuming mice.

Photo by Kathy Chilton

We do have field mice that somehow squeeze their way into the house during the first cold night of fall. Our catching traps allow us to release them under the tree the Cooper’s hawk favors – giving both creatures a chance. There are deer mice in our shed and we are wary of them and their relationship to hantavirus – yet another reason to have a supply of masks.

We are learning much from the ABQ Backyard Refuge Program, especially about the care and planting of beneficial native plants.


The largest rodent in the United States lives here along the middle Rio Grande. We can look for their lodges in ponds like in back of Tingley Beach but are more apt to find them cruising around the holes they live in along the riverbanks. These holes are hard to see as the beavers bring in brush to camouflage them. Since we also have nutria and muskrat in the mid Rio Grande watershed, you can identify beavers by looking for their flat tail.

Photo: Elliot Collwell / FlickrCommons

There are literally hundreds of beavers in our watershed. Their dams can become a problem by blocking waterways between ponds and other waterways. Since there are important ecological advantages to having beaver dams/ponds for groundwater recharging, the Open Space Division in Albuquerque has been able to build channels between ponds to keep the water level even. In other areas, restoration groups have built wetlands around areas where beavers have dammed streams and then fenced off cattle grazing.

Right now, winter is coming, and the beavers have chewed down a food supply and stored it near their holes. If it becomes too cold, they can hibernate below the ice and retreat to their underwater passages while still having food handy.


Pollinator Corridor

The North Campus Neighborhood Association has begun a new initiative to develop a Pollinator Corridor throughout their neighborhood. Humans depend on plants and plants depend on pollinators. Some of these pollinators have a very limited forage range, ie., native bees. This makes it all the more important to have a swath of pollinating plants in our “Bee Friendly City.” The project includes trainings on the importance of native and drought tolerant plants, where to plant in the yard, judicious uses of water, and integrated pest management.

The Solid Waste Management wildflower project has been developing median strips with this concept and now there is an effort to do the same throughout a neighborhood. For more information check out North Campus Neighborhood Pollinator Corridor.

Native Plants

It’s nearly Spring! We are looking around and thinking about planting, but what will require little water and tolerate heat in this Chihuahuan Desert?

Think native grasses. Not only will they fulfill the requirement for little water and tolerate sun, but they will sequester much more carbon than exposed dirt, landscape rocks, or wood chips. However, with moisture, they tend to take over so check out their seeding habits.

  • Little Bluestem has blue-green blades early in spring and turns rust in fall.
  • Blue Gramma has eyebrowlike seed head and grows to a foot high.
  • Big Bluestem is the primary prairie grass of “Amber waves of grain” and grows to 5 feet.
  • Side Oats Gramma is a prairie ground cover which, with water, grows to two feet.
  • Indian Rice Grass will green up early in spring.
  • Sand Love Grass seed heads change in color from purple to amber.

To add some color, intersperse with Flax, Desert Marigold, Desert Zinnia, varieties of Penstemon, Purple Prairie Clover and Desert Four O’clocks. The latter two will bloom all summer.

Some of the following native shrubs and trees are eligible for rebates from the City of Albuquerque.

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Otowi to Elephant Butte

Otowi is a word in the Tewa language meaning ‘place of noisy water. This place is on the ancesteral land of the San Ildefonso people. In 1889, the U.S. Geologic Survey choose Otowi as the location of its first national stream gauge with the purpose of determining if adequate water was available in the New Mexico Territory for irrigation purposes and if the government should encourage new development and westward expansion. They decided to go ahead with expansion, and the Otowi Bridge gauge near where the Rio Chama flows into the Rio Grande remains a major measure for water law. Sixty percent of the water passing the Otowi gauge has to be delivered to Elephant Butte, which by compact, is considered the delivery point of water to fulfill New Mexico’s obligation to Texas.

Otowi water gauge
Current Otowi water gauge transmitting in real time.

But what is a compact? Every time water crosses a state line, a compact, similar to a treaty, is written and ratified by congress. New Mexico is part of eight different compacts. In 1938, the state legislatures of Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas signed off on our largest compact known as the Rio Grande Compact. The purpose was to “equitably proportion water in the Rio Grande basin and to remove causes for present and future controversies.”  

The U.S. Geologic Survey placed index markers (gauges) at intervals along the river so they could monitor the flow of water downstream. New Mexico is to deliver 12 billion gallons of water to Texas each year but we have struggled to do so. The trend over the past 10 years shows us falling behind. Currently we are about 100,000 acre feet in arrears. (One acre foot is 326,000 gallons of water.) When the debt reaches 200,000 acre feet we will violate both state and Federal laws. In other words, there are consequences.

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The Impaired River

Sandia Mountains beyond the Rio Grande. Photo by Katherine Chilton.

In 2002, the New Mexico Environment Department labeled the mid Rio Grande as an impaired river, i.e., the water quality did not meet the designated standards for a river. The major pollutants were identified as E.coli bacteria, oxygen depleting substances, polychlorinated bio-phenols (PCBs), and gross alpha radiation.  

Federal and state agencies, county and local municipalities, and tribes began meeting. They developed the Watershed Restoration Action Strategy (WRAS) with two action strategies, one for Tijeras Creek in 2004 and one for the Albuquerque portion of the river in 2006. They have been working on these ever since as funds became available. There is also ongoing monitoring of the pollutants in ten-year cycles.

Fecal contamination occurs when the number of E.coli bacteria (used as the marker for all microbial contamination) passes a certain level. Along the Rio Grande, sources of this contamination include leaking septic tanks, farm animals, birds and an impressive 20% from dog poop.

Oxygen depleting substances disturb the needed balance in water to support life for microbes, fish, and plants. When too many nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from our fertilizers get into the river, microbes increase, using up the oxygen in the water. When this happens it causes dead zones in which fish and other aquatic fauna and flora die.

PCBs were banned in the US in 1979, but these chemicals linger in high concentrations in water and sediments and continue to be highly toxic for humans, causing birth defects and neurologic diseases. Along the Rio Grande, PCB contamination is thought to have come from the industries manufacturing electrical components and oils.

Gross Alpha Radiation refers to large particles which are emitted from the decay of Uranium and Radium, most occurring naturally from soil and rocks. They do not travel far, but when they enter animal or human human bodies, they do damage.

So, what has happened since our river was labelled impaired?

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