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Santa Fe River Preserve Restoration Project Completed: Cleaner Water Provided, Habitat Restored

August 9, 2004
WildEarth Guardians
In This Release
Santa Fe, NM – August 9. Last week WildEarth Guardians finished a sometimes highly controversial project to improve water quality and wildlife habitat of the Santa Fe River downstream of the city wastewater treatment facility. The restoration project, which included over two miles of the river that is on city property within the airport boundary, significantly improved the quality of the water after it is discharged from the sewage treatment plant.

Over the last three-plus years local school children, city residents and WildEarth Guardians staff have planted literally thousands of native trees in an effort to restore the native streamside forest. The latest phase of the project, conducted over the last six months and completed this week, included the removal of nearly 4,000 non-native trees, including salt cedar, Siberian elm, and Russian olive.

“This project has helped restore the beauty of our river landscape, engaged our community and restored the purity of our water,” said Jim Matison, restoration coordinator for WildEarth Guardians. “Native wildlife is returning to this area now that their habitat, especially the critically endangered cottonwood/willow forest, has been restored.”

The restoration project produced the intended result of significantly improving water quality according to monitoring conducted last week by the New Mexico Environment Department. The recovery of native vegetation has increased shading of the stream, thereby reducing solar heating, and stabilizing water temperatures. Also, this stabilization of water temperatures have decreased algae growth within this section of the river

The Santa Fe River is currently New Mexico’s 303d list of impaired waters for its stream bottom deposits, pH levels, and low dissolved oxygen. Livestock grazing, road construction, sand and gravel mining, polluted runoff from the City, and discharges from the City of Santa Fe’s wastewater treatment plant are all factors in the river’s current polluted condition.

Though a majority of residents in the adjacent community of La Cieneguilla supported the project, a few residents opposed the planting of native trees alleging that WildEarth Guardians needed to acquire a water right prior to planting cottonwoods because the cottonwoods would use water. The New Mexico State Engineer has not required WildEarth Guardians to obtain a permit and acquire a water right in order to plant trees.

The project also included removal of several large earthen berms to allow the river to flow in a more natural manner by meandering within the floodplain. In the short amount of time since the project’s inception, dramatic changes are evident along this restored stretch of the Santa Fe River. Cottonwood and willows have developed a canopy over large portions of the river creating an oasis for migrating birds and other wildlife.

During the life of this project over a dozen local schools, including Ortiz Middle School, Santa Fe High School, Santa Fe Prep, and the Willow School, participated in tree planting and in removing non-native trees. These schools also participated in discussions about the ecological value of property functioning riparian systems and their vital importance in New Mexico and the Southwest.

“Cottonwood and willows area a seasonal delight” said La Cieneguilla resident Ed Campbell, a long-time supporter of the restoration project. “The quality of life for the residents of La Cieneguilla has been lifted, and will benefit materially as well as culturally from this project,” Campbell added.

The recent completion of the non-native tree removal completes the expenditures from a $143,000 grant awarded to WildEarth Guardians by the New Mexico Environment Department nearly four years ago. “This project demonstrates that citizens can heal damaged landscapes and polluted waterways,” said Matison. “We look forward to restoring more of the Santa Fe River and other degraded waterways. These areas are precious and need to be protected.”

WildEarth Guardians hopes to initiate a new Santa Fe River restoration project in partnership with Santa Fe County on county open space lands this coming winter and spring.