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A Point-By-Point Response to Criticisms Alleged by Jose Varela Lopez concerning the status, origins and effects of the Santa Fe

June 1, 2001
WildEarth Guardians
In This Release

Friday, June 1, 2001
A Point-By-Point Response to Criticisms Alleged by Jose Varela Lopez concerning the status, origins and effects of the Santa Fe

The primary opposition to the Santa Fe River Preserve has been generated by a handful of individuals who have made allegations that are responded to below.
Contact: WildEarth Guardians

Newly planted cottonwoods will deprive down stream interests of irrigation water.

As you may have heard, some individuals are concerned that restoration activities on the river will reduce surface flows. The equation of plant transpiration, surface water evaporation, and groundwater recharge is a complex one. Having reviewed the scientific literature on the subject, there is considerable uncertainty about the assertion that restoration of healthy streamside forests and wetlands would lead to a net loss in water.

On the other hand, it is well documented that native streamside, or riparian, cottonwood-willow forests and wetlands contribute significant benefits both to local groundwater recharge, stormwater storage and release, and surface water infiltration. They help to clean polluted waters, act as a sink for contaminants and trap sediments, and at least as importantly provide a variety of services to local plant, animal and human communities.

Moreover, there are numerous studies, summaries of which have been provided, which show that non-native vegetation-especially salt cedar-uses as much as 2 to 3 times as much water as native cottonwoods. WildEarth Guardians has removed hundreds of salt cedars and probably thousands of Russian olives and Siberian elms. We intend to continue these non-native eradication efforts and would be happy to expand them to county, private and BLM lands in the vicinity of the Preserve.

Finally, the City is well aware of its obligation to deliver water to downstream senior water rights holders. That commitment to deliver water should be formalized by the City. As a demonstration of our commitment to allay the concerns of downstream irrigators, WildEarth Guardians is prepared-preferably with the assistance of the City and the New Mexico Environment Department-to install monitors that track stream flow volumes at the downstream end of the Preserve. These two efforts will once and for all resolve downstream delivery obligations.

Planting cottonwoods requires the acquisition of water rights.

Some individuals have alleged that the planting of cottonwoods requires the acquisition of a state water right. These concerns are likely fueled by a September 28, 2000 letter from State Engineer, Tom Turney to Peter Maggiore, Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department. In this letter, Turney says: “If there is an increase in depletions, we would like to discuss with you the necessity of obtaining water rights to offset these increased depletions.” The statement from State Engineer Turney that a water right is required is qualified by an “if”. Furthermore, since this communication nearly two years ago we have not heard further from anyone at the State Engineer’s office. More significantly, the state engineer had an opportunity to assert that this project requires a water right but over the last two years has deliberately chosen not to require one.

Furthermore, those familiar with New Mexico State Water law know that a water right requires a point of diversion. WildEarth Guardians is not diverting water at any point and thus we have no point at which our so-called water use could be quantified.

The New Mexico Environment Department currently has 64 riparian and/or wetland restoration projects ongoing throughout the State of New Mexico. Not a single one of these projects has acquired nor has been asked to acquire a state water right in order to be conducted. Finally, on a related note, there are numerous projects within the Santa Fe River watershed that involve tree planting that have not required a water right-and for which there has not been any objections from Mr. Lopez. These projects involve State Land, private land near Agua Fria and the City restoration project adjacent to West Alameda.

Once mature, cottonwoods in the preserve will cause future catastrophic flooding in the river canyon when they get washed downstream.

Flooding of the Santa Fe River is a natural occurrence, although its effects may be more severe as a result of the increase volumes of storm water run-off from impervious surfaces in the City of Santa Fe. In 1996, a flood that some called a 500-year event destroyed three large stretches of County Road 56, adjacent to the Santa Fe River. This flood did not result in the blocking up of the canyon as alleged by Mr. Varela-Lopez.

Furthermore, in light of the fact that there are more than 3,000 Russian olive trees and about 100 mature cottonwoods in the 1-mile immediately above the narrowing of the canyon, we question whether Mr. Lopez has a genuine concern about flooding or whether there is another agenda to his opposition to our tree planting. If Mr. Lopez had previously been advocating for the removal of the trees in the mile above the Canyon, we would at least find his concerns to be less blatantly hypocritical.

Finally, to the extent that there is a concern on the part of County Public Works division that debris could block culverts under Calle Debra or further downstream on BLM property WildEarth Guardians would be happy to address the problem. We would be happy to develop and submit to the County a “vegetation management and maintenance plan” to ensure that culverts are cleared of debris on a weekly basis during the summer monsoon season.

WildEarth Guardians did not have the legal authority from the relevant City, County and federal entities to conduct restoration activities at the Santa Fe River Preserve.

WildEarth Guardians today has provided City Councilors with a series of communications between WildEarth Guardians and city staff, the airport manager, and individual city councilors that date back to the Spring of 1997. The first communication with city was in March of 1997. The first written communication with Ron Sandoval, City of Santa Fe River Coordinator, was in November 1997. I have located at least four letters on city letterhead that responded to communications from WildEarth Guardians and that addressed the project between 1997 and 1999. In addition, during that time frame I had a meeting with councilors Bushee, Heldemeyer and former councilor Cris Moore about the existing and proposed activities at the Santa Fe River Preserve. Thus, allegations that WildEarth Guardians did not obtain authority to begin restoration activities do not have any merit.

WildEarth Guardians has also provided the City with copies of two different communications between WildEarth Guardians and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concerning the possible requirement to obtain a federal 404 permit under the federal Clean Water Act. As the documents provided show, the Corps determined in both instances that WildEarth Guardians did not need a federal permit in order to conduct the requested work.

In addition, an adjacent private landowner has claimed that we did not have authority to conduct restoration activities on his private lands. However, according to a February 7, 2001 letter (also provided to the council) from Mr. Bradley Thomas, WildEarth Guardians was, in fact, provided with permission to fence the private land, remove non-natives, remove trash and plant cottonwoods and willows. It was not until Santa Fe County threatened Mr. Thomas with a violation of county regulations that the private landowner rescinded permission to work on his private property. In our opinion the regulations cited by the country apply to development projects, not to digging trenches for the purposes of planting cottonwoods. The bottom line is that since the private landowner’s unfortunate decision to rescind permission to conduct restoration activities we have not worked on his private land.

WildEarth Guardians, some claim, has not informed the public at-large and local residents about efforts to restore the river within the Preserve.

WildEarth Guardians has provided the City with copies of numerous articles and press releases that show that we have announced numerous events that highlight the restoration work at the Preserve. We have done numerous mailings to our membership as well. Nothing about what we have done has been exclusive. If people would like to come out and remove trash, cut downs non-natives and plant trees we’d love to have them. It is difficult, backbreaking work. Because of our efforts to inform the public at-large numerous people from La Cieneguilla have attended restoration events on earth Day and other days.

The Santa Fe River in the area was never a cottonwood/willow gallery forest. As an example personnel recollections and photos/maps from 50-80 years ago demonstrate that there are no trees along the river in the La Cieneguilla area.

WildEarth Guardians respectfully disagrees with these allegations on two levels. First of all, the waters of the Santa Fe river have been under increasing human development for approximately 400 years. Water development became so intensive by the mid 19th century that City leaders proposed construction of a dam as early as the 1860’s. The first damning of the rivers waters actually occurred in 1883. Thus, any efforts to understand the natural condition of the Santa Fe River from its headwaters to its confluence with the Rio Grande must take into account-not just the last 80 years-but the last 400 years focusing especially on the effects of water development in the last 125 years. In our opinion it is not surprising that by 1920 the river corridor had become a lifeless dry wash, the life sucked out of it by human over consumption.

Second, and of equal significance from our perspective, is that the Santa Fe River, like many a southwestern waterway is endangered. According to a 1995 Department of Interior report, the southwestern cottonwood/willow gallery forest is one of the 20 most endangered ecosystems in North America. This did not happen overnight and it did not happen exclusively because of any one, singular activity. The cumulative and synergistic effect of dams, water diversions, ground water pumping, livestock grazing, mining, levees and other activities have destroyed these precious ecosystems. Thus our restoration effort is about bringing back a piece of our collective heritage-a heritage that ensures that all creatures, from will flycatchers to native trout, have adequate habitat to exist and thrive. Prior to intensive settlement of this watershed, the Santa Fe river ebbed and flowed such that in some years it flowed all the way to the Rio Grande uninterrupted for 12 months of the year, while in any other years the river slowed to a trickle or even dried up. The point, however, is that what we see today is a tattered fragment of what the river once looked like.

Mr. Varela Lopez claims that we have misrepresented comments from the journals of Antonia De Vargas and other early settlers when they first came upon the river 400 years ago.

First of all the quote is pulled almost verbatim from an historical document entitled “Crusaders of the Rio Grande” by J. Manuel Espinosa, published by the Chicago Institute of Jesuit History in 1942.The excerpt from the book was provided to me by Sam DesGeorges, with the Taos office of the Bureau of Land Management. In his cover letter to me, Mr. DesGeorges comments, “from the passage it appears that the “heavily forested” areas described in the journal occurred on the Santa Fe River somewhere between Cieneguilla and Santa Fe.”

Furthermore, WildEarth Guardians never claimed that the quote was from an exact spot within the Santa Fe River Preserve, but merely that the quote demonstrates that the Santa Fe River southwest of town that we see today is vastly different than the one that existed there 300-400 years ago.

The Preserve is fenced off to exclude people. As a related matter, there is an allegation that we ripped out the do not trespass signs on private land.

The Santa Fe River Preserve is fenced to exclude livestock. It is not fenced to exclude people. In fact, there are 4 different ‘pass-through’ areas along the two-mile stretch of river. At the moment there is nothing preventing people from accessing the area and hiking along the stream.

The perception that we posted no-trespass signs exists because a private landowner adjacent to the Preserve posted no trespass signs on his private land and mistakenly posted some on city owned property. We removed signs that were mistakenly posted on city owned property.

WildEarth Guardians has been inflexible and difficult to work with.

When WildEarth Guardians first heard about opposition from a few local residents we met with them, city staff and County staff and toured the river preserve. Further, as a result of concern expressed about the number of trees to be planted, we have dramatically scaled back our restoration activities. Instead of proposing to plant 10,000 trees we are now willing to plant 5,000 total trees-an addition of only 1,500 trees. If we can scale this back to 750 to 1,000 trees to cover those areas where we intend to do the majority of earth removal, then we would be happy to further limit of the number of cottonwoods that we intend to plant.

The Project does not benefit the City and won’t remedy the problem of water pollution.

Below the municipal wastewater treatment plant, the Santa Fe River is currently in violation of state water quality standards for its stream bottom deposits, pH, and temperature resulting from storm water runoff, overgrazing, historic and ongoing sand and gravel mining, and other activities, according to the New Mexico Environment Department’s Surface Water Quality Bureau.

To remedy this problem, the New Mexico Environment Department awarded WildEarth Guardians a grant, whose primary purpose is to address the problem of ongoing violations of water quality standards in the Santa Fe River by expanding and expediting our ongoing river restoration work. In its approval of our grant, the NMED recognized that:

“This project will also indirectly contribute to stabilized dissolved oxygen concentrations and pH in the Santa Fe River by inhibiting algal growth through decreased solarization, which is expected to result from increased shading by riparian vegetation and concomitant decreased width to depth ratio of the river channel.

Efforts by WildEarth Guardians to bring the Santa Fe River into compliance with water quality standards below the wastewater treatment plant have significantly favorable implications for taxpayers and the operation of the City’s wastewater treatment plant. The City of Santa Fe, through its discharge to the Santa Fe River, has an obligation to ensure that water quality below its wastewater treatment plant meets New Mexico water quality standards – thus it is clearly in the best interest of the city to see that the river comes into compliance with those standards.

Without a move toward non-point source remedy of these violations the city is left with an obligation under the Clean Water Act to find other ways to improve water quality in the river. If non-point source pollution controls are no implemented then significant, expensive and time-consuming upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant could be in order.

The Santa Fe River Restoration Project currently being undertaken by WildEarth Guardians serves the goal of brining the stream into or closer to compliance with water quality standards at no cost to the City of Santa Fe.


In closing, I question whether criticisms made against this project have anything to do with genuine concerns, and more to do with personal vendettas, or philosophical opposition to WildEarth Guardians. We are happy to work with the community of Santa Fe and the community of La Cieneguilla to restore the Santa Fe River. We have invested a lot of time, energy and hard work to reach this goal. If others want to work towards this legal and ethical obligation to restore what we have lost, we are here to say let’s continue the work. There is much work that needs to be done.

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