Seeking the Leading Edge of Community Watershed Health and Training Water Protectors

Summer 2023 passed with three of us running five crews of 35 people in five communities in northern New Mexico and we didn’t have any major incidents.  Whew!!!  What a relief and time to reflect on some of the amazing experiences we had seeking the leading edge of engaging the next generation of water protectors in actively engaging in doing important watershed assessment/observation, storytelling about findings and promoting long-term ecological restoration.   How can we better learn from emerging and traditional ecological knowledge practices and approaches that restore ecological health and thereby watershed resilience? 

We really did well in data collection/observation/analysis at several places such as Pecos Canyon State Park, the Gallinas Watershed burn scar, and El Rito Campground.  Some of the maps really helped our partners rapidly survey/bioblitz and understand potential new trail routes, locations of soil erosion, and where replacement of power poles and lines on steep and burnt slopes will require collaborative mitigation to prevent massive soil loss.  A sample of them can be seen here: 

  El Rito Campground Assessment Map

Gallinas Canyon Powerline Erosion Assessment Map

Pecos Canyon State Park Trails Survey Map 

This summer I witnessed crews swarming with unlocked cellphones with GPS turned on to rapidly read the landscape and assess and describe conditions with georeferenced photos.  And when we took the time to build the maps, this becomes a powerful tool for sharing data!  We are fortunate to have a low cost software license (thanks ESRI!!!) for non-profits so we can serve mostly schools and community groups in rural and urban parts of northern New Mexico.  That’s a little bit of the rub and the point I’m trying to make about what I learned, or at least some of the big takeaways.  

Caring for our water and land that hold us and keep us alive starts with people having more somatic experiences outdoors, telling stories about what they see and observe, and having chances to visualize and participate in long-term ecological stewardship of special places.  I want to do restoration work and keep coming back each year with students and interns so the can observe and learn to tell the story as the place transforms from it’s current condition and realizes it’s potential.   Incorporating local people who are land wisdom keepers and community sparkplugs who care and are willing to help can make or break a project, so it’s critical to resource them.  Often it’s critically important to be willing to pay them to keep engaged in moving ecological restoration projects forward.   

We’re deep into grant writing for 2024 Youth Conservation Corps grants, supporting partners like the New Mexico Acequia Association and Hermits Peak Watershed Alliance and aligning our workplans to do co-locating crews and create a network of restoration sites.  New this year is fundraising for running our Watershed Academy year round so that in addition to the summer 4 week intensive internships, we’ll offer 12 hours per week internships for 1-2 interns per community in five communities during the school year.   

We are also having great collaborative discussions about scaling up crews so that more on-the-job work-learn experiences are available for more young adults 18-25 years old and they help for the next several years doing watershed restoration work in the burnt hills from Las Vegas to Mora.  This means scaling up our work in partnership with our partners to many more crews and project sites!  Whooaaa!

What this work is actually about is slowing down and paying attention to quality work rather than quantity.  For now I can bask in a bit of satisfaction all of our safety protocols worked, nobody got hurt, and several of them caught the bug, drank the punch, and are on the path to being water protectors as a way of life.  Training for being a water protector is actually something we are finding that can be clearly articulated and shared in educational work-learn settings.  Now we find our work in high demand and we are having to look at options for scaling our work and staying sane!  Fortunately we are reconnecting with past interns who are now working in jobs running tribal environment departments and working for local land conservation NGOs.  We are honored to now be working with former interns in professional settings and hope to continue and possible grow this practice.  Our land, water, and plants need protectors and we need more of them in the long run!