Cimarron Watershed Alliance

Posted: May 1, 2005
Written by: 
April Reese
Objective: To improve and maintain both the quality and quantity of water in the Cimarron watershed area through collaborative community activities involving all stakeholders.

Participants: Ranchers, homeowner associations, Forest Service employees, New Mexico Office of the State Engineer employees, New Mexico Fish and Game Department employees, local government representatives.

The group hopes to add to the list Taos Pueblo, whose reservation extends into the Cimarron watershed.

Currently, no environmental groups participate as official members, although one local group, Amigos Bravos, has attended a meeting or two. Developers are also not represented at this time.
 Cimarron River
Photo courtesy of Cimarron Watershed Alliance

History: The Cimarron River watershed envelops 1,032 square miles of ponderosa pine forests, grasslands and palisade cliffs on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, just south of the New Mexico-Colorado border. It includes the skiers' mecca of Angel Fire - one of the fastest-growing communities in New Mexico - as well as Eagle Nest, Ute Park, Cimarron, Springer and Cimarron Canyon State Park. All but one community in Colfax County depends on the Cimarron River watershed for their water supply.

Ranching and tourism dominate the local economy, with fourth-generation ranchers rubbing elbows with East Coast skiers attracted to the area's powdery slopes and hunters drawn by its abundant wildlife, including elk, deer, bear, turkey, and grouse.

The Cimarron Watershed Alliance came together in 2001, after a scientific study by the state found elevated levels of aluminum, fecal coliform bacteria, and other contaminants in the Cimarron River and some of its tributaries. Identifying the need for a local collaborative group to improve conditions in the watershed, the state Environment Department solicited grant proposals from mediation organizations to tap into federal money available for the formation of watershed groups. The Meridian Institute, based in Dillon, Colo., won the grant, and began recruiting participants.

The alliance set about identifying common objectives and priorities, which it then laid out in a Watershed Restoration Action Strategy. In the summer of 2004, the group received 501(c)(3) status.

So far, the group, which meets once a month, has been able to reach decisions through consensus, although its ground rules allow it to decide an issue by majority vote, if consensus fails.

Like many areas of the West, the Cimarron River watershed is rife with "doghair thickets" of small-diameter trees that could provide ample fuel for high-intensity, catastrophic wildfires. Such a fire could result in severe siltation of the watershed and harm the county's water supply. The alliance has begun thinning projects on two area ranches to improve the condition of the forest - the result of a century of fire suppression - by removing some of the small-diameter trees.

Although the group is just beginning to identify pollution sources, members suspect that old septic tanks, runoff from developed areas and, to some extent, livestock waste, may be contributing to the watershed's decline.

Accomplishments: Members of the three-year-old alliance pride themselves on setting aside personal agendas to achieve common goals. A spirit of camaraderie and commitment, as well as the guidance of a good mediator, has been critical to the group's progress, members say.

The alliance recently received a $600,000 matching grant from the Environmental Protection Agency; 60 percent of the money will come from the federal government and 40 percent will be paid by the state of New Mexico. The funds, to be used over three years, will support a number of on-the-ground projects, including setting up monitoring stations to provide baseline data on conditions throughout the watershed and identifying and reducing pollution from non-point sources.

Challenges/constraints: Tackling the grant application process has been a challenge for the group. Understanding the requirements and criteria for the grant proposal and crafting an application that meets them has taken a great deal of time and effort, members say.

The group has also had difficulty deciding its position on a proposal by El Paso Corp. to develop coalbed methane resources in the Carson National Forest's Valle Vidal, which encompasses the headwaters for a tributary of the Cimarron River. Many stakeholders fear that the network of roads that would be built to access the gas would send heavy loads of silt into the stream -- undermining the restorative work the group is trying to do -- and initially spoke out against the proposal, even sending letters to county commissioners asking them to consider passing ordinances to help reduce the impacts of development. In recent months, however, mixed views among members has led the group to adopt a position of "educational neutrality," providing information about both the pros and cons of developing coalbed methane in the Valle Vidal and letting residents and local leaders come to their own conclusions. Many members are still hopeful that county commissioners eventually will adopt ordinances to help prevent damage if the proposal goes forward.

With state and federal government employees on the membership list, the group must be careful to present their position as individual members of the alliance, not as employees of government agencies, members say.

For more information see:

The Cimarron Watershed Alliance

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