Summer dawn at the San Antonio Oxbow. Photo by Ken Gingerich

Wetlands play important roles in water management and ecology; they provide unique habitats, slow water movement along rivers in times of flooding, decrease erosion by stabilizing stream beds, improve the quality of water which moves through them, and recharge groundwater. Although much of New Mexico is arid, our state does have wetlands (look for them on the National Wetlands Inventory map!). Our wetlands are increasingly endangered.

A wetland is broadly defined as an area with plants and water. The four general classifications of wetlands are: 1) Marshes – areas which have continual, mostly surface, water and soft stemmed vegetation; 2) Swamps – areas often found alongside sluggish rivers and which have more shrubs and woody plants; 3) Bogs – spongy areas which may have moss and get their water from rain which saturates the soil; and 4) Fens – water-logged areas which can get their water from either surface or groundwater and can form peat over years.

In New Mexico, Amigos Bravos has done a lot of work in wetland protection and restoration in the Taos area. Their Wetlands Jewel Project has an informative website with many photos of 22 different sites (for example, Midnight Meadows and La Jara Canyon) which they have identified for protection or restoration in the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests. This work requires much cooperation from ranchers, BLM, Forest Service, county and municipal zoning, and others, as the wetlands can cover a vast area and be subject to many conflicting interests and jurisdictions.

Rio Grande Return is another organization working in wetland restoration. Their riverscape restoration along the San Antonio Creek is a good example of using Beaver Mimicry to increase wetlands. They have built 40 dams on a stretch of the creek. In the past four years, the water table has risen an impressive three feet.

In Bernalillo County, there is a 60–80 acre wetland called the San Antonio Oxbox on the west side of the Rio Grande. It can be reached by taking Namaste NW off of Coors NW. From the parking lot there are two trails: one provides views along the rim and the other descends and crosses some arroyos. Neither are marked as this property is still being developed by the City of Albuquerque’s Open Space division. Wildlife you might see, especially in early morning, include beaver, muskrat, deer, coyote, porcupine, bobcat, and fox. On the east side of the river, connected wetland ponds have beaver living in them in the Tingley Beach area. Both Valle del Oro and The Nature Center have plans to re-establish wetlands, and members of the Isleta Pueblo have been working for the past two years to clean out invasive species in their 1,000 acre bosque to reconnect the river to its flood plain.

A complex urban project managed by The Nature Conservancy, with collaboration from eight other advocacy groups and governmental agencies, is the Harvey Jones Channel. This is an example of what is called green stormwater infrastructure, a process for managing stormwater. It begins in the 60-square mile Montoya Watershed above Corrales and moves the stormwater through Corrales to the Rio Grande through the Harvey Jones Channel. The Harvey Jones Channel is joined towards the end by treated wastewater from Rio Rancho, allowing for year-round water. It acts as a bioswale, which is a linear U-shaped ditch with high sides that allows water to collect, penetrate into groundwater and, eventually in this case to the Rio Grande. The final part of the bioswale channel is a 10-acre parcel which curves in order to slow the speed of the water. Vegetation planted along its sides includes thousands of willow stems and cottonwood poles. This new wetland functions to additionally clean water and provide habitat for birds and other animals along the river.

In Socorro County, the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex in Bernardo and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge are examples of marsh wetlands, both increasing the water table height and providing habitat for migrating birds and other wildlife year-round.

New Mexico is not full of wetlands, but the ones we have are important and need our protection. Some need restoration, and the Harvey Jones Channel and its wetlands project demonstrate how green stormwater infrastructure can solve problems while creating a wetland with all its environmentally positive outcomes.


Photo by Vera Sidorva / unsplash

Beaver mimicry is a surprising new approach to restoring watersheds. Beavers have long been considered a nuisance species and problematic, but today there is an increased awareness of the positive effects their dams have on the environment. Beaver dams slow stream flow, decrease flooding, help develop wetlands, increase riparian vegetation, decrease erosion, and augment habitat for other species such as birds. Oftentimes, watching other species teaches us how to work with nature.

Beaver Dam Analogs (BDAs) are human-made dams that are carefully situated in a degraded stream. Wooden stakes are placed vertically and then willow or other brush is woven between them, allowing water to flow through the dam. A BDA slows the speed of water during times of high runoff and also allows water to be stored behind it, increasing groundwater recharge. Professional engineers adopt this strategy when they build weir dams – small dams built across a river to control upstream water levels. Riverscape Restoration photos from the Rio Grande Return website shows a stream with these dams in northern New Mexico. Currently, there are no beaver mimicry projects underway in the mid Rio Grande Watershed.

BDA is the fastest growing stream restoration technique in the American West and is used by wetland managers, ranchers, the Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management among others. There are now manuals for design of BDAs developed by researchers and government agencies, training workshops, and videos on how to construct one. (beaversww.org/articles-2/). And go to Beavers: Wetlands & Wildlife for many fascinating articles on beavers.



We’re grateful to Judith Polich for granting the Mid Rio Grande Times permission to print an excerpted version of this article, originally published in the Albuquerque Journal (click here for the full piece).

Riparian wetland. Photo by Katherine Chilton

According to the New Mexico State Wetland Summary, we used to have about a million acres of wetlands. We have lost 52%. Now only 0.6% of our land base is wetland. In our high desert communities those remaining should be considered our crown jewels. They have always been vulnerable but with the new Supreme Court ruling, Sackett vs U.S. EPA, what few protections most of our fragile, drought-prone wetlands had have been lost.

This politically motivated decision, which disregards any scientific understanding of wetland habitats, decimated many of the protections available under the Clean Water Act by revoking protections from wetlands that lack a “continuous surface water connection to larger streams, lakes and rivers.” Some 93% of New Mexico’s waterways are intermittent, including many of our ephemeral arroyos, cienegas, effluent-dependent streams, playa lakes and other man-made reservoirs, waterway and canals. Even the Rio Grande runs dry in certain areas at times.

 The effect on New Mexico will be devastating. We do require permits for certain ground water discharges, but we do not have a permitting system for surface water, including wetlands. Instead we have regulated our wetlands through the authority provided by the Clean Water Act and regulatory authority provided by the US Army Corp of Engineers permitting process.

Until we get regulations in place, many of our remaining wetlands and waterways are vulnerable to the rapacious actions of developers, ranchers and miners. We simply cannot let our few remaining wetlands be drained and filled.

To make matters worse, polluters may no longer need to have a permit to discharge hazardous materials into many of our watersheds. And since some large infrastructure projects like pipelines will no longer need Clean Water Act permits or environmental reviews, states may no longer be able to object even if proposed projects will harm our waterways and water users.

It is very clear that this ruling puts us all at great risk. As NMED Department Secretary James Kenny said, “The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision amounts to cultural appropriation for New Mexico residents and tribal members, stripping us of our connections to our most precious natural resource. This comes at a time when climate change demands even greater protection of ephemeral streams, wetlands and groundwater. While this decision is devastating to water-starved Western states, we will not be deterred from our mission to protect water for current and future generations.”

But it is not that easy. It takes legislative and administrative action, money, and EPA approval. John Roderick, NMED Water Protection Director, told the State Water and Natural Resources Committee in June that to get surface water permitting in place may take up to six years at current budget levels. We need to mandate a faster process and give it a budget priority. Six years is too long. And let’s not pretend this can get done in a 30-day session. We need a special session to tackle this issue and to address other long-deferred environmental matters. And we need immediate action on stop-gap measures until new regulations can take effect. How about some creative thinking? Can we regulate our surface water and wetlands under any current authority? We were caught unprepared. We need to act like it’s the emergency it is.

Judith Polich is a New Mexico resident and writes the climate change column“Cutting Your Carbon Footprint” for the Albuquerque Journal. She can be reached at judith.polich@gmail.com