Ruidoso River Association

Posted: Apr 1, 2005

High in the Sacramento Mountains of south-central New Mexico, about 60 miles east of White Sands National Monument

Participants: Local residents, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management employees, Mescalero Apache representatives

Objective: To preserve and protect a healthy and free-flowing Rio Ruidoso by improving both the quality and quantity of water in the river and restoring its high-quality cold water fishery.

History: The Rio Ruidoso begins high in the Sacramento Mountains, swishing through the Mescalero Apache reservation and the mountain town of Ruidoso as it cascades 6,000 vertical feet down its 30-mile course. The village of Rio Ruidoso, home to about 7,500 people, is surrounded by Lincoln National Forest and reclines in the shadow of the 12,003-foot Sierra Blanca, one of the southernmost glaciated mountains in New Mexico.

Classified as a high-quality cold water fishery by the state of New Mexico, the Rio Ruidoso is home to two species of German brown trout, as well as rainbow, brook and cutthroat trout.

Ruidoso, which means "noisy water," is dependent on its namesake waterway as a domestic water source and also as an economic engine. The river attracts anglers drawn to its rich trout fishery, and contributes to a quality of life that increasingly is drawing new residents, primarily retirees. Tourism, anchored in the town's famous race track, Ruidoso Downs, as well as recreation are the cornerstones of Ruidoso's economy; the city's population swells to 20,000 to 30,000 during the summer.

The group traces its origins back to the 1980s, when a cadre of fishing buddies took their poles to the Rio Ruidoso and found a dry streambed where the river should have been. Determined to restore the river to its former glory, the group started small, gathering two dozen people for a river cleanup. A drought in the mid-1990s galvanized greater support, and the Ruidoso River Association became a 501 (c) (3) non-profit group in 1997. Since then, the association has grown to 1,000 members.

Unlike many collaborative groups, the Ruidoso River Association only meets about once a year. Dick Wisner, the group's leader, coordinates collaboration among various interests and organizes projects largely through phone calls and written communication. Wisner, a founder of the group who was elected Executive Director by the association's board of directors four years ago, issues a monthly newsletter to keep members informed about recent developments.

 Rio Ruidoso
Photo courtesy of Ruidoso River Association
Accomplishments: The biggest notch in the group's water gauge to date is an agreement with the city that requires officials to divert water from the river only during high flows, guaranteeing a steady in-stream flow. Before the agreement, the town's diversions of river water into its reservoir - its primary source of drinking water - often left the Rio Ruidoso dry. Even in the midst of a four-year drought, the reservoir has remained full and the city has had no problem keeping taps flowing.

The Ruidoso River Association also counts among its successes an annual river cleanup, held each spring. The $50,000 event, which draws between 500 and 600 people in a town of 7,500, is paid for primarily by sponsors and features live music and other attractions. Participants break up into teams, which are then assigned to various sections of the river, and, over the past few years, its tributaries. Last year's festival, held May 15, 2004, drew the support of 100 local businesses.

The association's most recent accomplishment is an agreement with Ski Apache - a ski area owned by the Mescalero Apache Tribe and located just upstream from the town of Ruidoso - to control sediment and urban runoff from the resort. To reduce the impacts of the resort on the watershed, the group devised a management plan that was first implemented during the summer of 2004 and continues into 2005.

The group is also working with the city to address nutrient problem thought to be linked to septic systems, which are commonly used to treat household waste in the area (and throughout much of the rest of New Mexico). The city plans to extend its sewer system to connect with households now dependent on septic tanks.

On the financial side, the group has won several grants that members say have been invaluable in moving restoration and clean-up projects from the "good idea" bin to on-the-ground action. The grants, which the Environment Protection Agency offers as a way to meet the objectives of the Clean Water Act, are provided on a matching-fund basis, with EPA paying 60 percent and the group paying 40 percent. The association, which now claims 1,000 members, also raises money through a $20 membership fee.

The group has increased public awareness of the river and its problems, primarily through its popular cleanup day each spring. It is currently working with the state to establish pollution limits (total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs, in Clean Water Act speak), identify additional non-point sources and reduce both sediment loads and nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen.

In recent years, the association's geographic focus has expanded to include tributaries of the Rio Ruidoso, and it is part of a larger coalition dedicated to restoring the Hondo watershed, of which Rio Ruidoso is a part. Wisner also heads the Hondo group.

Challenges/constraints: The Rio Ruidoso watershed is a patchwork of city, federal, and tribal land, and fostering cooperation among all of those entities has sometimes proved challenging, those involved with the group say.

Backing up restoration proposals with expert opinion can help ease doubts and clear the way for productive collaboration, Wisner says.

The main issues affecting the river are sedimentation, often traced to construction in the steep canyon, and nutrient loading, possibly caused by wastewater from septic systems and agricultural runoff. The group continues to work with farmers, ranchers, businesses, and other landowners to address those problems. The association has encountered some resistance from real estate developers, who believe the association's efforts are anti-growth.

For more information see:

Ruidoso River Association
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