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Drought's Opposite: Santa Clara Pueblo Fears Rain

Santa Clara Pueblo now fears rain, even as the rest of the country struggles with drought, because the waters are sweeping away its fire-damaged, stripped, soil.
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New Mexico’s Santa Clara Pueblo fears further damage to their village of 3,100 people in the aftermath of last year’s Las Conchas wildfire as seasonal rains send water and debris down the canyon.

One year ago, what was then the largest wildfire in New Mexico history devastated the Pueblo, burning nearly 157,000 acres. This year, the Pueblo seek volunteers to help fill sandbags to stave off flooding from Santa Clara Canyon.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded $11 million in federal funds to help the Pueblo recover. The grant will go toward removing sediment from ponds inside Santa Clara Pueblo, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall said July 31 during his weekly radio address. He toured Santa Clara Pueblo just after floods washed away soil and exposed gas lines in July.

“The Pueblo have done their best to deal with these extreme weather events,” Udall said. “The Pueblo can finally start to clear the sediment that has washed down from the Las Conchas fire burn scar with every monsoon. These waters flowing down have ruined the ponds and funneled the rain down into the pueblo."

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, after touring the pueblo on July 17, pledged another $63,000 in recovery funds. This comes in addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars that the village has spent from its own bank account to prevent additional damage to the canyon.

“It’s amazing what has happened in our canyon as a result of last year’s fire,” Santa Clara Governor Walter Dasheno said in a news release about Martinez’s visit. “At one point on the tour, Governor Martinez did admit that she did not realize how extensive the damage was in the canyon. I think this really opened up her eyes to the devastation and the amount of resources we need to clean things up.”

The Pueblo estimate that it will take millions of dollars and 10 years of restoration efforts to get the canyon back to its natural state. The canyon is home to numerous tribal cultural properties, but it also is the Pueblo’s church, Dasheno said.

“It’s where our culture tells us we come from,” he said. “We pray for rain and we want the rain to come, but we are cautious because too much could ultimately mean destruction for the canyon and the Santa Clara Village.”

The Las Conchas fire started on June 26, 2011. It burned 43,000 acres the first day, driven by a strong wind combined with dry conditions caused by a six-month drought. By the time it was under control in August, the fire had destroyed 63 homes and 49 other buildings.

But the fire was only part of the disaster. Wildfires create “hydrophobic soil,” Michael Chavarria, director of the Santa Clara Foresty Department, said in a statement. That means the damaged forest floor no longer absorbs moisture. When the rain falls, “it has nowhere to go but down,” he said, adding that it takes just 20 minutes to reach the village.

Thousands of cubic feet of silt and debris already have filled fishing ponds and the Santa Clara Creek. The ponds are the last lines of defense against flooding the village, Santa Clara said in a news release. The water also is unearthing infrastructure, like the gas line exposure that forced evacuation of the tribe’s government buildings in July and prompted the council to declare an emergency.

The Las Conchas fire left a burn scar of more than 156,000 acres, including nearly half of the 31,000-acre Santa Clara Canyon, said Stephen Scissons, a hydrology engineer with the Albuquerque office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The canyon is almost exclusively on tribal land, and it is home to many cultural and natural resources used by the Pueblo.

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The most recent flood was July 11, Scissons said. About 1.25 inches of rain fell during a four-hour period, but water flowed from the canyon at 2,000 cubic feet per second.

“This is normal, everyday monsoon rain,” he said. “This is not rain that would normally cause a flood event.”

In the aftermath of a wildfire, hydrologists determine the burn severity and the slope of the land to gauge flood danger. Of the Santa Clara land that was damaged in the Las Conchas fire, 77 percent suffered moderate to severe burns, Scissons said. Much of the burn also occurred near the steepest part of the canyon, which further increases flood danger.

The canyon already was a high risk for floods because of the Cerro Grande fire, which ripped through the area in 2000, destroying much of the vegetation.

“That was 12 years ago, but there was still some healing going on from that fire,” Scissons said. “Then it was hit again.”

Depending on rainfall and other factors, land scarred by wildfire can take between five and 15 years to heal, Scissons said.

Although the fire was extinguished more than a year ago, recovery has just begun, Dasheno said.

“What we’re doing is regrouping,” he said. “We need to see where the issues are and who is out there taking proactive measures. What makes our situation unique is that we’re next to the canyon, and the fire burned most of the vegetation. So every time it rains, we have the potential of getting flooded. Our concern at this point is that there’s little to nothing to hold back flood waters. We’re looking for all the measures we can to hold it back.”

The Army Corps of Engineers last year donated sand bags to the Pueblo, along with training and assistance in placing the bags to best prevent flooding. The same scenario is playing out again this year, Scissons said. It likely will continue until the land has recovered some of its natural vegetation, but drought conditions are expected to increase the recovery period.

“We all want it to rain in the Southwest, but there are some places we don’t want it to rain at all,” he said. “It’s a catch-22. We need the rain to help the watershed, for the vegetation to come back, but we don’t want the flooding.”

Dasheno is asking residents to stay put.

“We don’t want people to leave their residences,” he said. “We will find every measure to protect homes, livelihoods and property.”