Here in the Southwest, water is scarce. This scarcity means that protecting the health of our watersheds and the quality of our water is of utmost importance. San Juan Soil & Water Conservation District is directly involved with numerous ongoing projects that promote water stewardship here in the District. Read on for more info.
Conservation work is often perceived as being divided into separate silos – one for water, one for invasive weeds, one for wildfire protection, etc....However, natural resources and processes are connected in innumerable ways. Water is a resource that connects almost every aspect of an ecosystem. Because of these connections, a number of District projects lead to improved water quality and watershed health, in addition to their other goals.
Below are the District's focus areas related to watershed health and water quality:
Riparian zones, the green, lush strips of land along rivers and streams, are very important to water quality and river health. They house a multitude of species, prevent streambank erosion, and filter pollutants from runoff before they enter the river.
The District has partnered with numerous organizations to restore riparian zones along the Animas, La Plata, and San Juan rivers. This restoration work has included removing invasive Russian olive and tamarisk from banks (read more here), planting native willows and cottonwoods, and working to restore floodplain wetlands. We have also done collaborative erosion control projects on tributaries to the Animas River, as well as streambank stabilization on the San Juan River.
Nutrient & bacteria mitigation
In recent years, both the Animas and San Juan rivers have exceeded recommended limits of bacteria and nutrients in numerous locations. Lowering the levels of these pollutants is important both for human health and for the health of fish and other species living in the river.
San Juan SWCD works with partners (including the San Juan Watershed Group) to identify the sources of pollution in local rivers. Without knowledge of where pollution is coming from, reducing it is difficult. Once sources of contamination are identified, the District works with farmers and ranchers, septic companies, and other partners to implement practices that filter or remove bacteria and nutrients before they enter the river.
Watersheds are complex systems. An event today can have effects for decades into the future. Similarly, remediation and restoration efforts in watersheds must be long-term and flexible. Watershed health efforts require careful planning, long-term monitoring, and close collaboration between parties along the watershed. Developing a watershed-based plan (WBP) is essential to reaching this level of organization.
Over the past few years, San Juan SWCD has partnered with groups in both Colorado and New Mexico (notably the San Juan Watershed Group) to formulate the Lower Animas River Watershed Based Plan (LAWBP). The Animas has been on New Mexico's "impaired" waters list since 2002 due to its high levels of bacteria and nutrients, as well as other factors like temperature and sediment load. This impairment necessitates a comprehensive WBP. The LAWBP includes numerous recommendations for improvement, including agricultural and livestock best management practices (BMPs) aimed at reducing pollutant loads in the river.
Erosion control on rangelands
Rangelands are a valuable economic and natural resource in New Mexico. However, overgrazing and livestock activity near waterways has caused both upland and streambank erosion throughout the state. This erosion increases sediment load and compromises riparian habitat and other features that help mitigate nutrient and bacteria content in the river.
San Juan SWCD partners with NMACD, NRCS, BLM, USFS, and private ranches to reduce erosion on rangelands. Practices include livestock water development away from riparian areas, rock and brush dams, sediment ponds, and sagebrush removal and reseeding of native grasses. (See our Invasive Weed Management page for more information on sagebrush treatment on rangelands.)