The last remnants of the wildfires were extinguished months ago, but hard-hit communities in the District are still cleaning up and repairing damages from the fires last summer. One such community is Raton, N.M.
The “Track Fire” originated June 12, 2011, on the northern outskirts of Raton and quickly burned close to 27,800 acres. Thousands of trees died in the watershed in Sugarite Canyon around Lake Maloya, which straddles the New Mexico-Colorado border. Lake Maloya is important because it’s the town’s primary water source. With no intervention, town officials feared extensive erosion from high water flows would carry ash, dirt and debris into the streams feeding Lake Maloya, fouling the water, making it turbid and difficult, if not impossible, to treat.
Burnt tree remains and the limited groundcover that didn’t burn offered little protection against erosion and high water flows from the monsoon rains that typically hit Raton in late summer. To reduce the risk to the town’s water supply, town officials called the District even while stumps still smoldered. Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the Corps has to approve actions that affect streams and wetlands. Several of the emergency mitigation actions required the Corps’ approval. Raton applied for, and received, an Emergency Individual Permit approving the construction of sedimentation retention basins within existing ephemeral streams or adjacent to stream wetlands in three of Lake Maloya’s major tributaries — three basins in New Mexico and one in Colorado. According to Deanna Cummings, regulatory project manager in the District, these basins are an “effort to try and retain sediment before it gets into the lake.”
This past year, Raton was fortunate – there were only a couple of big storms, the retention basins worked and Lake Maloya wasn’t contaminated. People fishing in the lake still catch live fish – a good sign. And while new trees will take years to mature, there was some grass recovery this year, and officials are hopeful this will continue in the next growing season as ground-cover vegetation helps slow erosion.
The concern is that this summer’s monsoon season could be worse than 2011. Generally, the second and third years after a major fire are when the flood peak events are at their highest. The first year is approximately 10 times the normal peak; the second year it increases to approximately 200 times normal. Cummings said that it “then slowly goes down as vegetation increases.” Cummings added that Raton is looking at active management in the watershed for five to seven years to protect the lake.
The town’s plan is that as the basins fill with sediment, town workers will restore them and build more basins upstream, replacing the first basins. The permit will be modified to add new basins as needed. Currently seven basins have been constructed. One basin in Segestrom Reach is approximately half full; the others vary in how full they are.
While constructing a basin, the first foot of soil is set aside because it contains a seed bank. This will be used to help restore vegetation in the basin after it fills with sediment. In spite of the damage, the fire has the potential to assist in ameliorating past damage from logging, grazing and other area land uses and enables progress toward environmental restoration.