The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Albuquerque District and the Pueblo of Santa Clara, New Mexico signed a historic partnership agreement Sept. 21 to conduct a watershed assessment for the Pueblo’s lands in the aftermath of June’s devastating Las Conchas forest fire.
The assessment will produce a plan that will identify construction and restoration opportunities for recovering the damaged environment and provide flood protection for the Pueblo’s village, as well as ultimately benefitting infrastructure down-river of the Pueblo in the cities of Espanola, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, N.M.
The agreement, termed a Watershed Assessment Cost Share Agreement (WACSA) under Section 203 of the Tribal Partnership Program, is the first signed by the Corps and a Tribal government.
The program authorizes up to $1 million a year, per tribe, for water-related planning activities to identify and prioritize water resources related projects that will substantially benefit Indian tribes, and are located primarily within Indian country or in proximity to Alaska Native villages, where such studies address flood damage reduction, environmental restoration and protection, and preservation of cultural and natural resources.
The agreement stipulates a 25 percent cost share on the part of the tribe, but the cost share can be met with in-kind work or equipment contribution.
“Santa Clara Pueblo has consistently been a high quality and responsible partner,” said District Commander Lt. Col. Jason Williams. “Their desire to enter into this agreement will ensure a plan is formulated for work that will benefit the Pueblo and numerous people living in the Middle Rio Grande Basin. It is the continuation of a great working relationship.”
Santa Clara Pueblo lands have been impacted by significant forest fires in the past, including the Oso Fire of 1998 and Cerro Grande Fire of 2000, but the recent Las Conchas Fire was particularly devastating and burned more than half of the watershed. Prior to this event, the Pueblo formed an alliance with Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, San Ildefonso Pueblo and the Corps to complete a feasibility study focusing on ecosystem restoration along the Rio Grande. However, since the Las Conchas Fire, Santa Clara leaders have had to focus on fire mitigation measures. “The hydrology for Santa Clara Pueblo lands completely changed once burned by the Las Conchas Fire,” said District Tribal Liaison Ron Kneebone. “Damage that would be expected during a 500-year flood will now happen during a 10-year event, and Santa Clara’s village is at significant risk.”
Kneebone said watershed assessments typically take about three years, and, with the signing of the agreement, work started right away when the District awarded contracts for aerial photography of the burned area. He said the imagery is an important first step, as the Pueblo’s charred canyon has been inaccessible for several weeks because of post-fire flooding.
According to Kneebone, Santa Clara’s government thinks the agreement is critical. He said Santa Clara Governor Walter Dasheno, Sr. went to Washington to meet with the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Ms. Jo-Ellen Darcy to discuss the Tribal Partnership Program.
“The Pueblo is concerned that any protection that was available for their village prior to the fire and floods has been removed,” Kneebone said.