“I don’t think we will need rubber boots, we can usually avoid stepping in the saturated areas at San Antonio Creek,” I told colleagues before heading out for a field visit with New Mexico Environment Department and Audubon Society representatives. Well, that’s not true this year! When we visited the creek in May, the banks were flooded and soggy. Squish, squish, squelch, went wet muddy shoes as we walked along the floodplain. But I didn’t mind, this was exciting! Raising the water table and increasing the river-floodplain connection is exactly the goal of the long-term restoration project. This connection means that the soil is storing water to release later as creek baseflow during the hot summer months. It means that the wetland vegetation on the floodplain is watered by the shallow water table. It means that willows can thrive and expand to dense thickets that shade and cool the creek, creating habitat for beaver, endangered New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse, Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout, and all the other creatures that rely on this mountain stream.
Rio Grande Return has constructed 60 beaver dam analogs and placed 120 large woody debris structures along 2.5 miles of San Antonio Creek over the past four years. This work builds on a prior 2012 project that included planting 7,500 willows and 650 cottonwoods/aspens, and construction of five exclosures to protect the plants from elk or cattle.
The changes are small, localized, but repeated many times they accumulate, beginning to transform hydrologically isolated terraces into an integrated riparian system. We see an increase in wetland vegetation across the valley width as the water rises. The vegetation is taller, more dense. We see several small fish hiding in the shelter of a large woody debris structure. Debris in the willows indicate that spring flood waters rose nearly three feet this year. We see the improved health of the floodplain that will continue to evolve, adding complexity and diversity to the ecosystem. Our observations seem validated by the 2022 designation of San Antonio Creek as an Outstanding National Resource Water. This affords the creek a high level of water quality protection.
Rio Grande Return will continue to elevate the water table upstream of the existing project. A newly funded River Stewardship Program project will focus on willows, beaver dam analogs, post-assisted log structures, and elk exclosures within the Valles Caldera National Preserve. I can’t wait to go back when the plants are green. Next time I will wear waterproof boots.