As state and federal agencies try to keep up with flash flooding’s impact on homes and infrastructure in Mora and San Miguel counties, there is no mitigation strategy sufficient to reduce fish kills in rivers and streams within the burn scar left by Calf Canyon prevent – Hermit’s Peak Fire. Even the Rio Pueblo in Taos County is at risk.
Authorities are working to reduce erosion in the burned watersheds, but their primary goal is to mitigate threats to public health and safety. Meanwhile, residents along the NM 518 corridor are certain that the brown trout they have long fished out of the Mora River will not survive the suffocating ash slurry that is draining from the burn scar and entering the waterway. New Mexico’s state fish, the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, is also among the species that are going extinct in large numbers.
“We haven’t seen dead fish just because we didn’t manage to get there back to the river,” due to the treacherous black mud deposited across the Mora River valley during recent flooding, Chacon resident Micheal Maes said. A spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish confirmed this week that the agency had “attempted to rescue fish from the upper Rio Mora, the one that is a tributary of the upper Pecos, but the fish had already perished.”
“In remote locations, like the badly burned Rio Mora, recovery will likely take significantly longer and could take up to a decade,” the spokesman said.
“The department has observed fish kills in streams within the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak burn scar, and based on previous fires, we expect increased fish kills from post-fire flooding and ash flows,” the department spokesman added, noting that this was the case There have also been a number of successful fish rescue projects within the wildfire area.
“Almost as soon as the fire broke out, we began working with our partners to identify fish populations of high conservation value and make plans to save them, which means go to the creek, collect as many fish as you can and bring them to one safe place,” the spokesperson said, stressing that “there is very little we can do to mitigate the impact on fish habitat immediately after the fire because the impact of the fire on the landscape and the time between fire and flood is too short .”
Nonetheless, Game & Fish noted that it rescued “three important Rio Grande cutthroat trout populations” from Rito Morphy, Alamitos Creek and Rio Valdez. “The Alamitos Creek fish are back in the wild in Turner and Guaje Creeks, the Rito Morphy fish are being held temporarily at New Mexico State University and in storage in Middle Ponil Creek, and the Rio Valdez fish are in our Cutthroat Hatchery in Seven Springs.”
An impact on aquatic species remaining within the burn scar will likely result from an increase in water temperatures due to the new lack of tree cover, said Shannon Romeling, coordinator of projects and foundations at the water conservation and environmental justice organization Amigos Bravos.
“Trout and delicate macroinvertebrates require cold water with high levels of dissolved oxygen; dissolved oxygen decreases as water temperature increases,” Romeling said. “Reduced plant cover makes soil more susceptible to increased erosion during rainfall, and [from the] Use of bare land by wildlife and humans.
“This increase in organic matter and nutrients can lead to lower levels of dissolved oxygen, which is detrimental to fish and macroinvertebrates,” Romeling added. “Increased erosion can also increase turbidity, which promotes higher concentrations of bacteria by shielding light from entering the water and increasing water temperature.”
Romeling said the wood ash carried into streams by monsoon rains will alter aquatic habitats in a variety of ways.
“The main problem with elevated wood ash in surface water is the elevated pH it causes,” she said. “Aquatic species are healthiest at a pH of 6.6-8.8. Surface waters with a pH above or below this range are classified as affected by the [New Mexico Environment Department]. Ash may also contain elevated levels of ammonium, nitrate, phosphate and potassium; These increased nutrient levels encourage bacterial growth.”
Interagency monitoring teams, as well as teams from the New Mexico Environment Department’s (NMED) Surface Water Quality Office, are monitoring water quality in “affected waters” within the burned area. According to Mathew Maez, director of communications at NMED, a state team collected samples in July to analyze them for mercury, selenium, dissolved metals, organics, radionuclides, etc. coli. The department did not provide the results of these sample tests.
Bodies of water determined to be affected by the wildfire will be included in the biennial list of impacted bodies of water that the Department submits to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The next updated list is due April 1, 2024.
“Those water bodies that do not meet the water quality standards are included in the impacted water body list, which then conducts a series of activities to restore the impacted water body to meet the standards,” Maez said.
It can take up to a decade or more for water bodies to recover from the types of impairments that can cause wildfires, according to a fact sheet from the Surface Water Quality Board.
“Following the 2000 Cerro Grande fire, concentrations of several metals (e.g., copper, aluminum, barium, manganese, and zinc) increased and in some cases exceeded state water quality criteria,” the data sheet said. “As the forest and soils recovered, these concentrations decreased, and by 2010 these waters no longer exceeded state water quality criteria.”
Kyle Ruggles, a fly fishing guide at The Reel Life Fly Shop, said he and his fellow guides are concerned about the high risk of fish kills. The Pecos River, for example, is one of the Santa Fe National Forest’s most popular fishing destinations. It draws a significant number of tourists and locals alike to its premier fly-fishing waters and is an integral part of the region’s outdoor economy.
“We’re all pretty confident that there’s going to be a great death from the fire,” Ruggles said. “What we have heard is that ash has entered the Mora River. And we’re curious how much ash ended up in the Pecos River system in the canyon. So it’s not just the Mora River on the back side of the mountain – we’re pretty sure it will take years for this habitat to find its way back – but we’ve heard there’s already ash in the Pecos.
The Department of Game and Fish said it was hopeful that fish populations would recover relatively quickly in the Upper Pecos Drainage, which was “largely spared from large-scale, high-intensity fires.”
The New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division is trying to support recreational businesses affected by this year’s wildfires by connecting them with grants and educating them on strategies for the years to come.
“As wildfires burn statewide, dozens of outdoor recreation businesses have found their spring season catastrophically disrupted,” the department said in the introduction to a disaster preparedness webinar for outdoor recreation businesses in June. “Forest closures, mandatory evacuations and hazardous air pollution from smoke are just some of the impacts of the fires that have caused businesses to close. And the climate crisis increasing New Mexico’s drought will make fire years like 2022 more common.”
A replay of the webinar, which will review “sources of emergency funding such as loans, grants and tax credits, and policies such as disaster insurance and wildlife liability programs,” is available at nmoutside.com/outdoor-recreation-events.
A spokesman for Carson National Forest addressed the threat to aquatic life in the Taos County portion of the Rio Pueblo, which flows through the far western edge of the 341,735-acre wildfire scar.
“During rain events, burn scars can contribute to an increase in bank erosion and an increase in ash-laden sediments entering the Rio Pueblo,” said Public Affairs Officer Zach Behrens. “This can result in suspended solids and ash affecting the overall health of the Rio Pueblo; Aquatic species like fish clog their gills and can die; the water temperature also increases, which negatively affects the water world; Fish spawning beds also become silted up, which is successful makes spawning more difficult; for aquatic species that rely on sight for food, suspended matter and ash make this difficult.”
Behrens noted that public safety was of paramount importance. Carson National Forest has posted flood warning signs in recreation areas along the Rio Pueblo that remain closed to the public.
“Our primary focus has been protecting life and safety from flash floods along the Rio Pueblo,” he said. “No land treatments have been recommended to mitigate storm runoff within the Rio Pueblo watershed. Monitoring conditions in the canal will continue to protect infrastructure and minimize the potential for downstream flood effects.”