Question 7: The upper watershed was closed to public access in 1932 to protect water quality. It is now the only public lands watershed in New Mexico or Colorado that is closed to public access, and Santa Fe treats and drinks water from the Rio Grande. What are your thoughts on this closure?
Given the importance of the watershed to the drinking water supply of the City of Santa Fe, generally about 40% of that drinking water, protection of the watershed is another critical issue. I have been an advocate for opening up the watershed to guided public access so that more people can enjoy the watershed, come to understand its beauty and significance to the City of Santa Fe and expand recreational opportunities. Is unfettered access warranted at this time? While most people would use such access in a responsible and reasonable manner, we have affirmed to us frequently how devastating a moment of carelessness can be. A fire in the watershed could be catastrophic and must be avoided.
This is a difficult issue. On the one hand, the upper water shed is a very large area of public land close to the Santa Fe that could provide any number of potential recreational uses to the public. On the other hand, I can understand the concerns of watershed managers that additional recreational usage of the watershed land could increase fire risk there. (A major fire in the watershed could have a catastrophic impact on water collection there through increased erosion and contaminants draining into the reservoirs).
In spite of these concerns I feel that with proper monitoring and management it should be possible to allow recreational use of the watershed, particularly in periods of low fire risk.
I support the continued closure of access to the upper watershed to the general public. The rudimentary roadway system and lack of public facilities present great liability risks and high initial investment needs to the city. More importantly, as we deal with continued drought, the fire risk to our upper watershed remains high. This requires protection at the highest levels of not only our upper watershed but also our reservoirs. We have witnessed, first hand, the long-term detrimental impacts of wildfires on watersheds in other areas. Areas such as Santa Clara Creek and Nambe Reservoir have been decimated by erosion and build-up of silt, respectively. A human-caused wildfire could devastate the upper watershed, reservoirs, the canyon preserve, and the Santa Fe River for generations. Allowing limiting access for educational and watershed management purposes is appropriate. Our native surface water from the upper watershed is a vital component of our water sources and is a primary source for our Upper Canyon Road Water Treatment Plant.
I am reluctant to take a position on this issue without more knowledge and input from the agencies charged with protecting our watershed. That said, I would hope that at some point it would be possible to open the area to public access.
Santa Fe does get a significant amount of our water from the watershed, and keeping it safe and secure is critical to our livelihood. As the question points out, other municipalities do not close off their watersheds. Also, there are many ways our water supply could be compromised— even with the closure that is now in place.
However, given that the watershed is so close to town, if opened to the public, it could be “loved to death” as happened to some areas along the Pecos River before the Forest Service stepped in to protect vegetation and the river’s banks. If the City moves to open the upper watershed, clear controls and a monitoring system will be needed to keep human impacts under control, probably by limiting access in some equitable way and by prohibiting camping and perhaps even fishing.
The upper watershed is a tremendous asset for the City of Santa Fe. It’s time we developed a plan to open it, even if only as a day use area. With community input we can craft a plan (and we will need to find the money) to make the upper watershed a significant addition to the opportunities for all to enjoy the natural world at their doorstep. There are big issues to be settled. It will take time and it will have to be done carefully, but we can and should begin the planning process.
*Note: These questions were submitted for distribution by the individual members of the Board of Directors of the Santa Fe Watershed Association. The questions and the resulting answers are posted as they were submitted and were not edited prior to this posting. The order of the responses in the survey, were in the order that they were received by us. The Santa Fe Watershed Association does not endorse any one candidate for any of the offices being contested. The information is deemed reliable but cannot be guaranteed.