Monsoonal rains have been sporadic, although the past week proved wetter than several previous weeks. With a gully-washer rainfall last Tuesday, sludge and ash have washed down the mountain, leaving surface streams choked in some places.
“Water quality is definitely a concern,” says David Warnack, Smokey Bear District Ranger. He’s been in regular contact with New Mexico Environmental Department officials developing a plan to keep citizens safe. Working in tandem with Ruidoso Utilities and Fire department leaders, Forestry is a part of the remediation package.
With the recent White and Swallow fires still creating flooding concerns in other areas, Warnack says it may be more than five years before any sort of watershed equilibrium is achieved in Lincoln County.
“The reseeding efforts are completely accomplished,” says Warnack. Helicopters have finished dropping seeded hay in areas affected by the fire, in an effort to regrow vegetation. 19,211 acres have been reseeded and 10,311 acres have been straw-mulched. With watershed carrying ash, silt and sludge in addition to forest fauna fecal mass as it rushes downhill, there is currently little vegetative mass to slow and sift rainfall.
“The soil is the polishing factor in a slow rain – our aquifer is filled with a slow rain and as it sifts down, the soil cleans the water enough for us to send it through our purification system for the public’s use. It’s a real balancing act. This is uncharted territory – we’re making the best guess we can make and will adjust as needed,” says Bob Decker, Utilities/Project engineer for the Village of Ruidoso.
Rainfall as small as a quarter inch causes flooding. Bonito Lake, a main water source for Alamogordo and Holloman Air Force Base, has been compromised to the point of being declared unsafe. Kraut Canyon’s parking area at the lake has been covered with several inches of sludge with massive watershed runoff. Estimates are near the 10-year mark before the lake achieves a usable form. Planned lake drainage continues and workers move sludge flows from roadways after each rain.
“The 49th Civil Engineer Squadron has a well-trained and equipped team who continues to assess the situation and is working with various agencies to determine exactly what the impact will be to Holloman. Ensuring a safe working and living environment is a priority for the Air Force, as well as senior leaders and all members of Team Holloman,” says Arlan Ponder, chief media relations officer of the 49th Wing Public Affairs Department at Holloman.
With early estimates stating it could be years before some hydrophobic soils allow vegetative growth, Burn Area Emergency Response predictions have been sobering. “Hydrologic function will be greatly degraded due to the loss of vegetative ground cover and erosion. Recovery of watershed condition can take up to 25 years,” reports the BAER team’s assessment of residual fire issues.
Recently seen however, is native grass growth in several burn scarred areas. Immediate regeneration of aspens up to 18 inches have been reported in high country scar, according to Warnack. Natural springs have begun to trickle in the midst of broad swatches where rocky streambeds have transisted to wide river ways. Volunteer growth is occurring, although Warnack says high severity areas may be barren for years to come.
“Ski Apache is an important economic driver,” says Warnack. “We’re cutting down hazard trees in the runs and repairing and replacing some of the lifts in anticipation of ski season.” The forest service administers the permit which 80-90 percent of Ski Apache resides. In the midst of the Little Bear, Ski Apache workers ran snow makers 24 hours a day to assist in fire retardation. “The folks at Ski Apache have been there from the beginning of the fire as solid partners,” says Warnack.
With hunting season approaching, Warnack and his team are quickly assessing major hunting areas for physical and flood hazards to hunters who populate several places in the burn scar. Trees which have burned but have yet to drop present a problem. Forest service is working to make hunters aware of potential dangers and are trying to stay ahead of injuries by felling dead trees and removing hazardous flora prior to the season’s opening.
Next spring Warnack hopes to find the Village of Ruidoso, Lincoln County and the Forest Service working together for long-term solutions. Getting past the upcoming winter will present challenges of its own. Proposals for available federal grants and exploring biomass utilization will be at the forefront for some. Interagency flood groups and cooperation between entities is key for solution-based discussion, says Warnack.
With last week’s massive monsoonal rain and watershed affecting areas as low as Fox Cave on Highway 70, flooding issues are here to stay for a while, according to Randall Camp, village Utilities Director. “The Duck Pond did its job and we’re grateful it worked to keep sludge from the Alto reservoir,” says Camp of last week’s downpour.
Lincoln County’s water storage, supply and demand solutions remain to be seen in the coming months and years.