Rio Grande Water Fund - Comprehensive Plan for Wildfire and Water Source Protection, New Mexico

The Rio Grande Water Fund and The Nature Conservancy developed this Comprehensive Plan to guide forest restoration projects, and outline a funding plan to ensure New Mexico’s water security through the restoration of forested watersheds connected to the Rio Grande. The plan sets the priorities for allocating funding to areas with important water sources and high wildfire risk. With reduced snowpack and hotter summer temperatures contributing to greater risk of severe wildfire, this plan represents an adaptation strategy to both moderate wildfire risk and to protect water quality and supply for New Mexico.

In the face of climate change and heightened vulnerability to wildfire, the Rio Grande Water Fund aims to increase the pace and scale of forest and watershed restoration with a goal of restoring 600,000 acres over the next 20 years. The water fund is the mechanism to allow for this ten-fold increase in restoration, collecting and facilitating investments from government agencies, water users, community stakeholders, and others. The report outlines a financing strategy, and identifies priority areas for funding allocation in the form of four focal geographic areas and project criteria. The project criteria help evaluate and prioritize proposed projects within a given focal area.

Appendices include descriptions and details of debris flow, runoff, wildfire, water quality and supply, economic, forest health, and fish and wildlife analyses that helped determine the focal areas and priority criteria identified in the Plan.

The plan additionally outlines a landscape-scale restoration plan that includes thinning treatments, controlled burns, stream restoration, post-fire watershed restoration, planning, education and outreach, and monitoring activities. Appendix D lists specific restoration activities that can be included in funded projects. Objectives for the Outreach and Educational Plan are laid out, including to “Connect the issues of forest health, wildfire, climate change and water.” Finally, the plan describes a Monitoring program (detailed in Appendix H) to track Rio Grande Water Fund’s restoration activities, investments, and management strategies.  

The 2011 Las Conchas wildfire is highlighted throughout the Comprehensive Plan describing the environmental and economic damage of this fire to the Rio Grande and the cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. A cost comparison of that wildfire to that of forest restoration illustrates the value of investing in the “natural infrastructure” of a healthy forested watershed. According to the report, thinning one acre of dense forest in the Rio Grande Water Fund area costs $700 on average, whereas the economic impact of one acre affected by damaging wildfire can be up to $2,150 per acre. In addition to cost-effectiveness, forest restoration provides the benefits of clean water, water storage, habitat improvement, protection from wildfire, jobs, and economic development.


Publication Date: July 2014

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