ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The common phrase, “throw yourself into the fire” can be construed as having a negative connotation to some folks. However, in the case of Santa Clara Pueblo, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Albuquerque District Partnership, this phrase sheds a positive light on how the two parties forged a strong, and mutually beneficial, relationship during, and after, five federally declared national disasters, in the aftermath of two New Mexico wildfires.
The Cerro Grande wildfire, which occurred in May 2000, and the Los Conchas, in June 2011, burned more than 60 percent of the Pueblo’s forested tribal lands. Most notably, the Los Conchas fire burned approximately 50 percent of the Santa Clara Creek Canyon watershed, which is located upstream of the Pueblo’s village. The imminent danger, after the Los Conchas wildfire, was flash flooding. The fire burned the soil so hot that it turned the ground into a hard surface and, with no vegetation, it was impossible for rain to be absorbed. Because of this total burn, a rain event, that produced one inch of rain, created a flash flood, starting at the headwaters of Santa Clara Creek. Boulders, and large woody debris, were carried downstream, with such ferocity, that anything in its pathway was wiped out, or destroyed, as it made its way towards the Pueblo and Santa Clara Creek's confluence with the Rio Grande.
With the magnitude and size of the Los Conchas burn scar, on the Santa Clara Creek Canyon watershed, the Pueblo’s community, and infrastructure, are still susceptible to catastrophic flooding events, until the watershed is stabilized. The common goal, to stabilize the watershed, faced several challenges: deploying emergency management measures, to protect life and safety of the community; protecting infrastructure, such as roads and bridges; protecting the water supply and quality; and protecting cultural and natural resources. These monumental challenges, of building access roads, in-stalling temporary structures to stabilize slopes, and building sediment retention structures, forged a strong, and mutually respected, partnership between the Pueblo and District. Instead of two entities being encumbered by a bureaucratic process, they jumped into action, and learned how to work together, in an effective and efficient manner. During those stressful time, they were in lockstep, to bring each other’s unique skills to the table. Working together, for one common purpose, the District and the Pueblo gained mutual trust, and respect, which has allowed them to serve the community they were mutually protecting.
Santa Clara Creek Canyon has provided cultural, recreational, and hunting and gathering opportunities, for the Pueblo, since time immemorial. The wildfire, and post-fire flooding events, have impacted Santa Clara Creek Canyon for generations. Being able to access Santa Clara Creek Canyon, and participate in cultural practices, which are tied to this watershed, will be lost for those community members of the Pueblo born after 2011. It will take generations for the watershed, and forested land, to recover to pre-fire conditions.
In September 2018, the Santa Clara Creek Canyon Watershed Management Plan was the first in the nation to be completed under the USACE Tribal Partnership Program Authority (Section 203 of the Water Resources Development Act of 2000, as amended). The WMP is a strategic roadmap that will allow the Pueblo’s decision makers to implement fire recovery, ecosystem restoration, recreational and cultural access recommendations.
Although the watershed is slowly healing, as a result of emergency and recovery measures, and natural regeneration, implementation of the WMP recommendations is critical to the success of the Pueblo’s recovery efforts. Implementation will require assistance, from federal and state agencies, for generations to come. In addition, the WMP complemented the Federal Emergency Management Recovery Support Strategy Plan for the Pueblo; this effort will allow Pueblo, federal and state funding to be effective – “More bang for the buck” – and prevent overlapping efforts in the future.