Tribes is working with the Army Corps of Engineers on the Rio Grande $100 million restoration project

The Rio Grande on its way through New Mexico.  Decades ago, the Rio Grande was among the rivers the federal government attempted to bend, leading to a large, unintended consequence that affected at least two native pueblos.

The Rio Grande on its way through New Mexico. Decades ago, the Rio Grande was among the rivers the federal government attempted to bend, leading to a large, unintended consequence that affected at least two native pueblos. (Flickr)

(Tribune News Service) — Decades ago, the Rio Grande was among the rivers that the federal government attempted to bend to its will, leading to a large, unintended consequence that affected at least two native pueblos.

Federal authorities have redesigned a section of the meandering river in northern New Mexico to move on a straighter path to increase speed and reduce sediment. This allowed it to flow more cleanly and not spill onto the bank.

But efforts to control flooding and increase efficiency deprived the riparian areas of a natural overflow that watered trees and vegetation and improved wildlife habitat in the bosque.

The government is now attempting to restore this stretch of river, which runs through tribal areas, to some extent to its former form.

Pueblos Santa Clara and Ohkay Owingeh have signed a planning agreement with the Army Construction Superintendent for the $100 million Española Valley Ecosystem Restoration Project. The work, first proposed two decades ago, will restore 958 acres of aquatic and riparian habitat along the Rio Grande and its tributaries within the two pueblos.

“Although these projects are being carried out on tribal lands, there is still a greater benefit to the non-native communities [downstream] also,” said Michael Chavarria, Gov. of Santa Clara Pueblo. “It’s much more of a broader span of support for the entire ecosystem of the Rio Grande.”

The federal government provides 88 percent of the funding, and the Pueblos must contribute about 12 percent, although tribes may also be eligible for waivers and other savings to reduce their share of the cost, Chavarria said.

He estimates that the design phase will take two to three years, and construction thereafter will likely take a year to get underway. The restoration could take up to 10 years, he added.

In a statement, the top army official who signed the agreement called the project unique.

“This particular environmental restoration project is the Army’s first major construction project…developed, authorized and now funded solely to benefit the natural and cultural resources of tribal units,” said Michael Connor, Army Assistant Secretary for Civil Works.

Sometime in the mid-20th century, authorities began restructuring parts of the Rio Grande — which has some of the heaviest sediment flows of any river on the continent — to prevent material from accumulating and impeding river flow, said Justin Graff, a spokesman for the bureau of the US Army Corps of Engineers in Albuquerque.

Officials later realized that sediment formation was necessary for the health of the riparian ecosystem, Graff said.

Chavarria said the project will essentially reconnect the flood plains with the river.

Aside from naturally irrigating cottonwood galleries and vegetation, the Rio Grande’s overflow will replenish ponds that dried up after the federal government long ago straightened that stretch of the meandering river, he said.

It will also make the river more accessible to farmers for irrigation, Chavarria said.

“The overall hydrological connection to this landscape is very critical,” he said. “It’s due to climate change. If you don’t get snow, how can we expect that water to be revitalized and regenerated?”

Although Santa Clara and Ohkay Owingeh will be responsible for each of their respective departments, the two will work together — just as they have done for 20 years to bring this restoration to fruition — to ensure their projects do not conflict, he said.

Nature trails and information booths will be added so guests, tribal people and children can understand the importance of the bosque and the cultural significance that surrounds it, he said.

“[It] is crucial for our younger generation, but also for our neighbors and the children who visit our pueblos,” said Chavarria.

(c) 2022 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, NM)

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