My Turn

Opinion: Cattle remain big threat to Río Fernando water quality

By Jerry Yeargin, Taos Canyon
Posted 1/18/19

Currently, a watershed plan for the Río Fernando is being finalized by Amigos Bravos, a Taos-based nonprofit specializing in water issues. In 2016, this organization received a grant of …

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My Turn

Opinion: Cattle remain big threat to Río Fernando water quality

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Currently, a watershed plan for the Río Fernando is being finalized by Amigos Bravos, a Taos-based nonprofit specializing in water issues. In 2016, this organization received a grant of $113,000 from the EPA, through the New Mexico Environment Department, to develop this plan to restore the Río Fernando.

Hazardous levels of bacteria on the Río Fernando headwaters, which are located in the Carson National Forest, have been documented by the results of hundreds of water samples taken by various agencies since 2005. The E. coli exceedances have been linked to livestock grazing on the stream banks, as reported in The Taos News on July 21-27, 2016: “Tests find grazing, E. coli link in Río Fernando.”

Based on the accumulated evidence, Amigos Bravos board members had already passed a resolution in 2014 which called for cattle grazing to be permanently ended on the stream banks of the Río Fernando. But now that the time has come to take action with its watershed plan, Amigos Bravos has changed its policy. Unfortunately, these water experts have repudiated the 2014 resolution and now support continued livestock grazing on this river according to a Forest Service guideline, which mandates grazing down to “4-inch stubble.”

This level will not allow for the reduction of the bacteria levels linked to grazing here. The 4-inch stubble guideline also prevents the reestablishment of the tree and shrub canopy, which is necessary to restore the surface aquifer and shade the stream banks so that trout can once again survive and thrive in this river.

Clearly, an exception to the federal grazing guideline is justified by the evidence in this case. Such exceptions are allowed under the resource protection clauses in every federal grazing contract.

In letters and meetings during the last three years, Amigos Bravos employees have maintained that their acquiescence and cooperation with the Forest Service guideline is essential for the restoration of the Río Fernando. But the truth is that the survival of this river depends on pushing hard for effective changes to end stream-bank grazing and restore the tree canopy along the river.

As Brian Shields, executive director for 28 years at Amigos Bravos, stated in a letter to the Forest Service in 2014, “Our water quality sampling results during the current grazing season have irrefutably and conclusively shown that cattle are the major contributor to E. coli contamination … Restoration efforts would be futile given … the degraded conditions of the riverbanks from … cattle grazing.”

Traditionally, Taos residents have depended on the surface flows that have replenished acequias and wells for hundreds of years. Despite this history, Amigos Bravos has bowed to Forest Service demands for continued intensive grazing along the Río Fernando. Apparently, the current director made this about-face from the previous policy in order to safeguard the income Amigos Bravos gets from grants it receives in association with the Forest Service.

Now is the time for Northern New Mexicans who are members of Amigos Bravos, as well as other concerned citizens, to join the good fight to save the vanishing Río Fernando. You can let Amigos Bravos board members know how you feel about this urgent issue by emailing your comments to jzupan@amigosbravos.org. Please raise your voice to help protect and restore this vital Taos water source.

Jerry Yeargin lives in the Taos Canyon near the river.

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