Municipal Watershed Investment Plan
We don't have to look far from Santa Fe to find examples of large wildfires that have destroyed watersheds and caused severe erosion that filled man-made water storage reservoirs with sediment and ash. With the Wallow, Las Conchas and Pacheco fires, 2011 was a particularly active fire season.
In the midst of an extended regional drought and other perturbations of climate change, these wildfires increasingly have the effect of permanently altering post-fire successional processes in southwestern forests which, in the Municipal Watershed, could mean a permanent loss of an ecosystem as well as the loss of the precious resource upon which we're all dependent - water. To prevent this outcome, the City of Santa Fe and its partners, the Santa Fe National Forest, The Nature Conservancy and the Santa Fe Watershed Association, have embarked on a long-term, water-customer supported, forest-restoration program.
2002 Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Project
In 2002, soon after the devastating Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos County, the City of Santa Fe and the U.S. Forest Service needed to secure our water source from the threat of fire. Thus began the 10-year forest treatment program to reduce the fuel load within the non-wilderness portion of the Municipal Watershed. With broad support from the community and local and national environmental groups like the Santa Fe Watershed Association and The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service has successfully reduced the fuel loads on over 5,500 acres of forest dominated by ponderosa pine within the non-wilderness portion of the Municipal Watershed. Thinning treatments have consisted of 1) cutting smaller diameter trees (<16" dia.) to restore tree density to natural fire regime levels (reduced from >1,000 trees per acre to 20-50 trees per acre), 2) slash pile burning, and 3) broadcast burning. Funding for this work came primarily from a $7 million congressional earmark, and a $1 million grant received in 2009 from the New Mexico Finance Authority Water Trust Board, both of which have now expired.
Today: A Long-Term Plan for Watershed Health and Reliable Water Supply
Santa Fe, like many communities throughout the American West, is highly dependent upon healthy forests within our watershed to deliver reliable supply of high quality water. Although annual precipitation and watershed yield has always been variable, climate change imposes additional imperatives on watershed management to ensure reliable water supplies in the future. In order to maintain the reduced fire hazard in Municipal Watershed below the wilderness boundary, treated areas require routine maintenance thinning and prescribed burning at 5-7 year intervals. In addition to areas already treated, approximately 2,900 acres of mixed conifer within the wilderness also pose a significant wildfire risk to the City’s water supply system and also require fuel reduction treatment and ongoing maintenance.
To address long-term Municipal Watershed health, in 2007 a collaborative planning group including the City, the USFS Espanola District, the Santa Fe Watershed Association and the Nature Conservancy were awarded a USFS Collaborative Forest Landscape Program grant to develop a 20-year watershed management plan. This planning effort culminated in development of the 2009 20-year Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Management Plan (Revised in April 2013), which provides a framework and recommendations for ongoing watershed management, environmental monitoring, educational outreach and long-term funding for a long-term project. The plan addresses four areas critical to project success: 1) vegetation management and fire use, 2) water management, 3) public awareness and outreach, and 4) financial management based on a “Payment for Ecosystem Services” model. The plan is unique in that it identifies City water customers as the beneficiaries of a healthy watershed, and proposes that costs associated with ongoing water source protection activities in the watershed be paid for by the public through the "Water Source Protection Fund." On the following pages you can learn more about this plan.
The 20-year Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Plan, adopted by the City Council through Resolution No. 2009-87, establishes the method and plan for forest treatments, the protocol for water quality and quantity monitoring, and recommends establishing a permanent funding source financed by rate payers for the ongoing protection of the watershed.
Avoided Costs vs. Program Costs
Based on recent wildfires in our region, it is estimated that fire suppression and rehabilitation costs associated with a 10,000 to 40,000 acre wildfire impacting some portion of the Municipal Watershed could be between $11.9M and $48M. The cost to dredge, haul and dispose of 2,000 acre-feet of sediment and ash from the City’s reservoirs would likely be between $80M and $240M. These costs exclude increased water treatment costs, increased water utility operating costs associated with production of water from different water sources and impacts to the local economy from loss of tourism income. In comparison to these avoided costs, the cost to treat and maintain forests within the Municipal Watershed is expected to be $5.1 million over 20 years, an average of $258,000 per year.
Who Is Paying For This?
Beginning in 2013, the Watershed Investment Program will be paid for by the City of Santa Fe Water Division, through direct support from the water utility's rate payers. In effect, this means that the beneficiaries of the healthy watershed (water customers) will pay for the important work to protect their water source. This amounts to $220,000 per year beginning in fiscal year 2013-14, a small price to pay for clean, high quality water.