Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
Fish and Wildlife Service Involved with Restoration of Rio Grande at Pueblo of Santa Ana
Southwest Region, April 19, 2001
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Last January (January 14, 2001), the Albuquerque Journal heralded the opening of an $80-million dollar Hyatt Regency resort hotel, a lavishly appointed, adobe-style affair perched just beyond the west bank of the Rio Grande, about 20 miles north of Albuquerque, on the Santa Ana Pueblo reservation. No less impressive than the new resort are the conservation enterprises of the Pueblo of Santa Ana as its members undertake to restore the natural landscape of the river where it runs through their land. To tribal members, biologists, and, indeed, guests of the new hotel, the restoration is already raising spirits ? and proving that a flair for business does not relentlessly preclude environmental housekeeping.

?Having an income from our various businesses, such as the Santa Ana Star Casino and the Hyatt Regency,? said Tribal Administrator Roy Montoya, ?helps us retain our cultural heritage.? In this instance, retaining cultural heritage is bound together with the Santa Ana Pueblo Bosque Restoration Project. Launched in 1996, the Bosque Restoration Project aims to enhance the Rio Grande and the bosque (forest) that lines its banks. The Rio Grande flows through the reservation for six miles. Of that distance, the Tribe and the Bureau of Reclamation have changed channel characteristics on a two-mile stretch; and with some funding assistance from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Pueblo has restored two miles of bosque on the river's west bank, just a stone's throw from the new hotel. Improvements on the east bank will begin soon, and plans are underway for restoring four more miles of the river. ?Rivers that run through Pueblo country have religious significance to Pueblo members,? explained Montoya. Both the Rio Grande and the Rio Jemez, which converge at Santa Ana, have religious significance to the Pueblo of Santa Ana. Historical anecdotes describe the Rio Grande as ?a mile wide and an inch deep.? But the river used to dramatically fluctuate between high and low flows. Flooding in the early 1940s impelled federal agencies into a construction mode of flood-control and river channelization projects. They built dams and levees and, along the river banks, they installed jetty jacks (12-foot cross-barred iron contraptions interlinked by thick metal coils) to trap sediment and debris during floods. These projects dramatically altered the character of the Rio Grande, converting it from a wide, shallow river to a much narrower and deeper one.

?The river looks more like a ditch today,? remarked Montoya. In the river's altered state, native trees like cottonwoods and willows did not have the floodplain conditions required to nurture germination. Meanwhile, non-native vegetation, such as salt cedar and Russian olive, began taking root, quickly spreading through the bosque. These exotic plants compete with native species like cottonwood and willow for water, light, and nutrients, and are more resilient to the fires produced by the under-story fuel they generate within the forest. The bosque has been dying a long, slow death.

The Santa Ana Pueblo's Department of Natural Resources first documented baseline conditions by mapping vegetation and conducting soil and water table assessments. The results were no surprise: they found a jungle-like infestation of salt cedar and Russian olive; highly saline, degraded soils; and a deeply cut river bed. Obviously, the Pueblo had high hurdles to overcome in returning the river to its natural conditions.

Santa Ana Pueblo's Restoration Program Manager Todd Caplan said, ?the Pueblo wanted to remove exotic trees, reestablish a mosaic of native vegetation, restore river channel characteristics, and improve fish and wildlife habitat for endangered native species such as the Southwestern willow flycatcher and Rio Grande silvery minnow.?

To deal with the infestation of exotic plants, the Pueblo has been working with New Mexico State University and Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in testing different herbicides on Russian olive root sprouts.

Also, the Pueblo used heavy machinery and ground crews to eliminate thousands of salt cedar and Russian olive trees. The salt cedar was shredded into mulch; the Russian olive was cut into firewood and distributed to the Santa Ana Pueblo elders.

After clearing 115 acres of salt cedar from what was previously a wet salt-grass meadow, Caplan and his staff amended the saline soils with gyspum and irrigation water, and seeded the area with a native, salt-tolerant grass mix which will prevent erosion. They also planted more than 1,600 cottonwood and black willow trees in areas where the salinity levels are low. A plant survival rate of 90 percent is encouraging to the Pueblo, which is closely monitoring their efforts, surveying wildlife, testing soil treatments, and inspecting plant cover.

Today, a 200-acre portion of the cottonwood bosque is free of non-native trees. Many of the elderly members recalled the days of their childhood when the bosque was an open-gallery forest consisting of the old cottonwood and willow trees.

?I think a lot of the elders were very pleased and some were emotional.? said Montoya. ?For me, it's been something on my mind for a long time to get the area restored as close to what it had been like as possible. When I was growing up, I didn?t see many non-native species in the bosque.?

Upstream, the Bureau of Reclamation joined the Tribe in restoring channel characteristics to a two-mile stretch of the Rio Grande. By slowing flow velocities, preventing channel erosion, and promoting over-bank flooding, a combination of hard and soft engineering techniques are working to restore native plant and animal communities, with an ultimate goal of restoring habitat for the silvery minnow, said Caplan. Still, as the project progresses, the irony does not escape him ? that such engineering tactics are required to return the river to the conditions of a simpler past.

Although changes in time require new ways of thinking, the Santa Ana people have not forgotten their heritage. Theirs is an important lesson: True progress requires environmental stewardship. While one hand builds a hotel, for example, the other must care for the land. Setting a precedent to its neighbors, the Pueblo hopes the efforts along the six miles of river running through their land do not stop?as if by dam?at the reservation boundary. The desire to heal the river, they hope, shall flow through the hearts of other communities living along its broken banks.

Contact Info: Martin Valdez, 505-248-6599, martin_valdez@fws.gov
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