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Greater Rio Grande Watershed Alliance

An overview of the mission and history of the Greater Rio Grande Watershed Alliance
The Greater Rio Grande Watershed Alliance grew out of a collaboration between five Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) in central New Mexico whose boundaries include the Rio Grande. Back in 2003, the SWCDs formed a steering committee to collectively manage state funding for removing non-native invasive trees from the riparian forest, or bosque, that borders the river. That group has since evolved into a collaborative effort between state, federal, tribal, and local entities working together to improve the health of the riparian ecosystem of the Rio Grande and its contributing watersheds.
GRGWA’s long term goal is restoring the Rio Grande bosque to a sustainable landscape that provides vital economic and ecological services to riverside communities in central and northern New Mexico.
Funding for the original initiative targeted removal of salt cedar (tamarisk), a small thirsty tree that forms dense thickets where shallow ground water is available, often outcompeting native plants such as cottonwood and willow. The Alliance’s precursor, the Upper Rio Grande Non-Native Phreatophyte Control Steering Committee, managed numerous small locally-led projects along the 100-plus mile stretch of the river between Española and Belen. They focused primarily on salt cedar because of its high water use and highly flammable nature, but also treated other invasives including Russian olive, Siberian elm, and Tree of Heaven.
The state appropriation was initially geared toward water salvage - reducing the amount of water taken out of the system by non-native phreatophytes like salt cedar and Russian olive. Control efforts took on particular urgency after a series of wildfires in the Albuquerque area burned hundreds of acres of prime bosque habitat, destroyed one house and damaged several others, and threatened neighborhood homes and businesses.
Those working on the projects soon recognized the greater benefits of restoring the bosque to a functioning forest ecosystem, including reducing the threat of wildfire, improving widlife habitat, and protecting a vital community green space, and additional funding was secured to meet those broader goals.
Project managers knew that cutting or extracting and masticating the trees was only the first step towards successful management. Because all the control species can sprout back from pieces of root left in the ground, spot application of herbicide on resprouts is required for several years after initial treatment to keep the plants from growing back.
The SWCDs and their partners informally monitored how both native and non-native plants responded to reduced competition, and determined whether, and where, to augment the recovery process by planting trees and shrubs based on their observations. They watched for new or increased occurance of noxious weeds. They also consulted with wildife experts, then adjusted the timing and location of treatments to avoid negative impacts. That meant doing the work in phases to allow native plants that provide essential habitat to return in some locations while postponing removal of some stands of invasives, which serve as an inferior but important substitute in the meanwhile.
After 2006, state appropriations began drying up due to a combination of economic and political factors. For a few more years the partners struggled to continue the essential tasks of treating resprouts and monitoring on-the-ground results. They decided they had to apply their limited resources more strategically to keep from losing ground.
The five SWCDs invited representatives from participating Native American pueblos, neighboring conservation districts, and New Mexico State Forestry, Environment Department, and Department of Agriculture to join. With their help, the group redefined its mission and expanded its membership and scope to long-term watershed restoration and stewardship in the upper and middle Rio Grande region.
The resulting organization, the Greater Rio Grande Watershed Alliance (GRGWA), connects the members’ local knowledge with agencies’ technical skills and resources. GRGWA’s objective is to strategically deploy a landscape-scale bosque restoration project that enhances and connects previous efforts. To do this will require collaboration across many jurisdictions. Member SWCDs and pueblos, with assistance from NRCS, private consultants and other agency field staff, have developed conservation plans for a number of high-priority projects. Most are cross-referenced in regional planning documents such as Community Wildfire Protection Plans and watershed restoration plans.
The representatives meet monthly to coordinate planning and fundraising across their jurisdictions. GRGWA partners collectively decide where and how to apply their funds to maximize results. At the same time the Alliance has begun seeking new sources of funding for implementing these plans on the ground by using its collective resources to leverage outside help.
As of fall 2010, the Greater Rio Grande Watershed Alliance’s partners include Claunch-Pinto, Ciudad, Coronado, East Rio Arriba, Santa Fe-Pojoaque, Valencia, McKinley, Edgewood,Lava, Taos, and Cuba Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs); Pueblos of Kewa and Santa Ana; EMNRD Forestry Division (NMSF); New Mexico Environment Department (NMED); and New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA). Other agencies that attend meetings or have been invited to work with the group include: State Land Office (NMSLO); Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD); U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE); and the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute (NMFWRI). The group also solicits input from business and non-profits organizations with expertise in watershed restoration and bosque ecology.
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