Drive up Canyon Road in the spring or take a walk through the bosque in the autumn, and you will see it clearly displayed in the quaking leaves of cottonwood trees — water is life. Water is what enables us to survive and thrive in this otherwise dry landscape which inspired O’Keeffe and continues to inspire Santa Fe’s active community and culture today.
Up to 40 percent of Santa Fe’s water comes from the forests and mountains rising above the city — its municipal watershed. The watershed captures rain, snow, filters it, and funnels it down to the Santa Fe River. The watershed stores the river water in McClure-Nichols reservoirs east of downtown. It supplies more than 87,000 residents and businesses in the Santa Fe region. Our way of living depends on the watershed.
The watershed is also at high risk. A 2018 joint analysis revealed that 81 percent (with its natural beauty, recreation opportunities, and watershed) is at risk of being burned in a high-severity wildfire, according to typical summer fire conditions. Trees are growing more densely than ever, exceeding historical norms and what the land can sustain, and competing for resources, becoming water- and nutrient stressed. This makes them more vulnerable to pest outbreaks, droughts, and wildfire.
For over a century, wildfires of low severity that once reduced the number tree growth in the forest have been suppressed. Our overstocked forests are no longer able to self-repair. Large tracts of forest will likely die if they aren’t thinned naturally with beneficial fire or other treatments.
A wildfire with high severity, fueled by brush and stressed trees, could scorch the soil, leaving it with a hard mineral crust that can’t absorb water from rain or snow. This soil is not suitable for trees or other plants. This charred soil would instead of cleaning our drinking water as the Santa Fe River flows into it, it would deposit silt, large debris and ash into the drainage. Our water source is at risk from tree death to wildfire, to dirty reservoirs full of ash, post-fire flooding, and debris flows.
We can take steps to improve the resilience of our forests. We can take action to protect the water that sustains life. The Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Residibility Project proposes treatments that restore forests to healthier densities, reduce resource competition and revitalize the soils through the nutrient cycle that occurs during a low severity prescribed burn. These treatments reduce the risk of wildfire spreading to high-severity areas and provide a safe area for firefighters to contain a fire. The treatments aim to preserve and increase wildlife habitat. This includes the conservation of large and old trees. Importantly, these treatments protect water by making the forest healthy and ready to face the challenges of climate change.
Wildfire is an inevitable part of our landscape. We can’t and shouldn’t prevent it. However, we should take steps to ensure that fires are contained and beneficial. We can restore the natural function of low-severity wildfire as nature’s housekeeper while creating habitat for wildlife and wild plants, preserving our rivers and streams, and keeping the forest beautiful as it inspires generations to come.
Our forests can play a role in surviving the climate crisis. But we must help them adapt. Our lives here are made possible by the forests and the water. Be a true advocate for forests: Visit santafefireshed.org/source-waterLearn more
Rachel Bean is a Santa Fe resident and professional who works with the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition.