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Amigos Bravos: our work to restore the Rio Fernando

January 22, 2019

I would like to take this opportunity to describe the work of Amigos Bravos and other entities to improve the Rio Fernando de Taos watershed, an important resource in Northern New Mexico. In his My View in The New Mexican (“Standing up for the vanishing Rio Fernando,” Jan. 13), Jerry Yeargin expressed criticism of our approach in this arena; however, he significantly mischaracterizes our work.

Amigos Bravos is an organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the waters of New Mexico. Founded 30 years ago, our initial efforts were focused on impacts to the Red River and Rio Grande from the Molycorp mine in Questa. Since then, our mission has grown to include issues and watersheds that are statewide.

Current examples include our work at Los Alamos National Laboratory to address the impacts of historical contamination into the Rio Grande; fighting the reopening of the Mount Taylor “zombie” uranium mine; successfully suing the Bureau of Land Management to keep oil and gas exploration out of the Santa Fe National Forest; fighting the various schemes to add diversion structures on the Gila River and many other issues.

Some years ago, concerns about the headwaters of the Rio Fernando caused Amigos Bravos to take a close look at this river and put some thought into ways our organization could help to address the problems. In partnership with Water Sentinels, we initiated a sampling program on the Rio Fernando, and we have sampled the river every year since 2007. We have used the sampling results to advocate for policy changes and funding.

For more than four years, we have been hosting discussions among stakeholders, including grazing permittees, the Forest Service, elected officials and concerned citizens, to discuss the sources of pollution and potential solutions. In 2016, we secured funding to begin a comprehensive watershed-based planning program, to quantify concentrations of E. coli, a bacterium present in animal and human waste, and to identify E. coli sources and potential restoration projects.

Last year, thanks to funding from the LOR Foundation, we, along with other organizations and entities that include the Taos Land Trust, Taos Valley Acequia Association, town of Taos, the U.S. Forest Service, Taos Soil and Water Conservation District, Taos County and The Nature Conservancy, formed the Rio Fernando Revitalization Collaborative to bring the Rio Fernando back to life. I’m proud of the collaborative’s efforts to achieve a consensus to restore the health of this watershed. We also have a significant ongoing project, funded by the Rio Grande Water Fund, to restore the wetlands at the top of the watershed, an area I believe is of particular interest to Yeargin — and to us.

So our work on the Rio Fernando is an extensive multiyear effort that we believe will yield dividends for New Mexico with an improved watershed. Last year, approximately 44 percent of our organizational budget was focused on this single watershed — a huge commitment for an organization managing numerous projects statewide.

We view Yeargin’s complaints as odd, considering that we agree that cattle should be kept out of sensitive riparian areas and Amigos Bravos is constructing cattle exclosures in the very area Yeargin mentions. It seems to me that his real issue is with U.S. Forest Service policy, particularly as it relates to grazing in the upper watershed.

Yeargin is free to express his views; meanwhile, Amigos Bravos will continue its work with its partners in the Rio Fernando Revitalization Collaborative to restore the water quality and function of the Rio Fernando watershed.

Joseph Zupan is executive director of Amigos Bravos. He lives in Taos.