Recent rains across much of New Mexico have brought some relief amid prolonged drought conditions, but for Michael Chavarria, the governor of Santa Clara Pueblo, the onset of a heavy summer monsoon is more than a mixed blessing. Every time clouds converge over the Jemez Mountains, he and other tribal members brace themselves for the worst.
Severe wildfires have raged through the upper reaches of the tribe’s lands in the past decade, with the 2011 Las Conchas Fire leaving about 80 percent of the pueblo’s watershed destroyed in its wake. The aftereffects pose an existential threat to the village, which rests along the flood plain where Santa Clara Creek meets the Rio Grande. Even light rainfall on the mountain can morph the little creek that cuts through Santa Clara Canyon into a raging monster full of debris, sediment and downed trees.
Chavarria scanned the skies during a recent late-afternoon drive with pueblo forestry workers up an improvised dirt road where there used to be a narrow, verdant creekbed. The pueblo’s forestry department director, Matthew Tafoya, pointed to the boulders now arrayed along the ravaged waterway, transported by stream flows that can swell to dangerous proportions. Hydrologists have estimated that certain storm conditions could send up to 21,000 cubic feet of water per second tearing down the canyon. The channel that diverts creek water through the pueblo’s residential area can only handle 8,000 cfs.
“Where is the remainder of the water going to go?” Chavarria said.
Flooding is just one of the threats Santa Clara faces as it learns to cope with the most destructive effects of climate change. Last year, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists listed the pueblo as one of 30 historic sites in the U.S. most vulnerable to shifting weather patterns as the region experiences a long-term warming trend and as large wildfires and extreme flooding become more common.
In a partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the nation’s primary flood control authority, and other federal agencies, the pueblo has set up a series of flood-control structures and put in place an early warning system throughout the canyon designed to give residents below at least an hour’s warning before floodwaters arrive. The last of the major flood control measures are in the final stages of completion as the summer storm season intensifies.
“We can’t stop the floods, but we can put in different projects to slow it down,” Chavarria said.
Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, the highest-ranking officer overseeing civil works and military construction for the Army Corps of Engineers, surveyed the damage to the Santa Clara Canyon watershed when he visited New Mexico last month. People don’t usually think of drought conditions falling under the mission of his agency, he said in an interview with The New Mexican, “but droughts and floods go hand in hand. You don’t have one without the other.”
John D’Antonio, the deputy district engineer out of Albuquerque, elaborated on that point. “Where there’s drought and wildfire, there’s going to be flooding. We were able to really put a nice case together here for Santa Clara to pull together everyone’s authorities and create a really successful project.”
He explained that immediately after the Las Conchas Fire, Army Corps experts in hydrologic engineering wrote a technical assistance report the pueblo needed to develop short-term disaster solutions with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Army Corps then launched a special joint effort with FEMA to ensure all the relevant federal and state agencies properly coordinated their disaster recovery and prevention efforts.
“We all have different authorities,” D’Antonio said. “Before FEMA can help, a disaster has to have happened. But the Army Corps has advanced-measures authority. If there’s an imminent threat, we can take action.”
Santa Clara tribal officials have deftly learned the skills essential to managing new flood risks, Bostick said.
Meanwhile, Chavarria said the Army Corps has stood out among other agencies for its commitments to both short- and long-term assistance. “The Corps really sits down with us and listens,” he said. “That doesn’t always happen.”
Bostick agreed that the federal government has historical baggage to overcome in its dealings with tribal communities. “You have to be focused on what the concerns are, listen to them and respond to them. We may not be able to answer all of their needs. We may not be able to fund all their requirements. But fundamentally, in order to have trust, you have to communicate on a regular basis.”
Immediately following the Las Conchas Fire, the Army Corps began dredging sediment, installing streambank protections, lining channels and installing other immediate flood protections. The Army Corps offered technical assistance to tribal staff while the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Reclamation also pitched in for recovery projects. The Federal Highway Administration repaired damaged bridges and conduits, and the U.S. Geological Survey helped install an early flood warning system. At the strategic level, Bostick said, each natural disaster contains valuable lessons, including at Santa Clara Pueblo. Each one also poses a question that’s grown increasingly urgent in the face of climate change: How do we help communities be more resilient?
One way, Bostick said, is to build infrastructure that’s bigger and stronger, but governments are hamstrung by limited funding. Thus, the questions deepen, he said: “How do you prepare? How do you absorb this disaster that’s coming, and how do you recover? And finally, how do you adapt? As a resilient community, you’d ideally come out even stronger, having learned all these new lessons.”
Resilience is part of how tribal people have always lived, Chavarria said as he and the pueblo forestry crew continued the climb upstream along the creekbed, where the formerly lush corridor has been scoured to the bedrock by flooding and erosion. It’s also clear that he and others with ties to the land here are struggling with loss in the wildfire’s aftermath as intensely as they’re determined to rise against the challenges.
“I have eight children,” Tafoya said. “My eldest is 30, and my youngest is 2, so I have older kids who grew up here, who grew up using it, and younger kids who will never see it the way it used to be. This was a devastating wildfire for this community. We’re the only watershed that has a community directly threatened. We can’t get up and leave. I live right by the creek — ”
He nodded toward Chavarria.
“His family, his mom, they’re the same. All this work we do, it’s not just for us, it’s for our families and the whole community. And it’s no longer just a local issue. It’s a regional issue. The amount of debris that’s being transported throughout the system, it’s being introduced into the Rio Grande and forces loading Cochiti Dam, so now there are some issues down there.”
Because the watershed is so out of balance, the pueblo’s 41 full-time forestry employees have to be prepared for burn-area emergency response while they also stabilize erosion-damaged areas, conduct reforestation and shore up high-elevation stream channels to reduce flooding where it originates. Before the Las Conchas Fire, commercial logging was an important source of revenue for the pueblo, so foresters are also preparing for their largest reforestation project to date. Come fall, a quarter of a million tree seedlings will go in the ground, followed by long-term studies of which ones survive and where.
Adding to the burden is the fact that most federal and state programs are designed for short-term disaster management, Tafoya said. “We still think we’ll be dealing with it 20 years down the road.”
The watershed’s constant, often violent shapeshifting creates a seemingly endless workload, and so along with scanning the sky for storms, Chavarria is always searching for funding. Luckily, Tafoya said, the Army Corps of Engineers has been able to use its authority to cover the costs of extensive and ongoing flood mitigation construction. And the Santa Clara Tribal Council set aside $5 million for cost-matching in case there are shortfalls in project contracts made with the Department of the Interior or Bureau of Reclamation.
However, Chavarria said, that means “we’re taking away from our social services programs, education of our children, law enforcement, our judicial system and tribal government.”
That’s why a big part of coping includes hosting visits from delegations of lawmakers as well as leadership from state and federal agencies, he said, “to help them not become complacent. Even though there’s constant work going on, the need is still constant.”
Contact Margaret Wright at (505) 986-3011 or firstname.lastname@example.org
. Follow her on Twitter @MargaretWrite.