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Case Study - Bluewater Creek

The watershed analysis and subsequent treatments performed at Bluewater Creek, New Mexico, demonstrate successful watershed and stream corridor restoration. Although most of the work has taken place on federal land, the intermixing of private lands and the values and needs of the varied publics concerned with the watershed make it a valuable case study. The project, begun in 1984, has a record of progress and improved land management. The watershed received the 1997 Chief’s Stewardship Award from the Chief of the Forest Service and continues to host numerous studies and research projects.

Located in the Zuni mountains of north-central New Mexico, Bluewater Creek drains a 52,042-acre watershed that enters Bluewater Lake, a 2,350-acre reservoir in the East Rio San Jose watershed. Bluewater Creek and Lake provide the only opportunity to fish for trout and other coldwater species and offer a unique opportunity for water-based recreation in an otherwise arid part of New Mexico.

The watershed has a lengthy history of complex land uses. Between 1890 and 1940, extensive logging using narrow-gauge railroad technology cut over much of the watershed. Extensive grazing of livestock, uncontrolled fires, and some mining activity also occurred. Following logging by private enterprises, large portions of the watershed were sold to the USDA Forest Service in the early 1940s. Grazing, some logging, extensive roading, and increased recreational use continued in the watershed. The Mt. Taylor Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest now manages 86 percent of the watershed, with significant private holdings (12.5 percent) and limited parcels owned by the state of New Mexico and Native Americans.

In the early 1980s, local citizens worked with the Soil Conservation Service (now Natural Resources Conservation Service) to begin a Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) project to protect water quality in the stream and lake as well as limit lake sedimentation harming irrigation and recreation opportunities. Although the RC&D project did not develop, the Forest Service, as the major land manager in the watershed, conducted a thorough analysis on the lands it managed and implemented a restoration initiative and monitoring that continue to this day.

The effort has been based on five goals: (1) reduce flood peaks and prolong baseflows, (2) reduce soil loss and resultant downstream channel and lake sedimentation, (3) increase fish and wildlife productivity, (4) improve timber and range productivity, and (5) demonstrate proper watershed analysis and treatment methods. Also important is close adherence to a variety of legal requirements to preserve the environmental and cultural values of the watershed, particularly addressing the needs of threatened, endangered, and sensitive plant and animal species; preserving the rich cultural history of the area; and complying with requirements of the Clean Water Act.

For analysis purposes, the watershed was divided into 13 subwatersheds and further stratified based on vegetation, geology, and slope. Analysis of data gathered measuring ground cover transects and channel analysis from August 1984 through July 1985 resulted in eight major conclusions: (1) areas forested with mixed conifer and ponderosa pine species were generally able to handle rainfall and snowmelt runoff; (2) excessive peak flows, as well as normal flows continually undercut steep channel banks, causing large volumes of bank material to enter the stream and lake system; (3) most perennial and intermittent channels were lacking the riparian vegetation they needed to maintain streambank integrity; (4) most watersheds had an excessive number of roads (Figure 1);

(5) trails caused by livestock, particularly cattle, concentrate runoff into small streams and erodible areas; (6) several key watersheds suffered from livestock overuse and improper grazing management systems; (7) some instances of timber management practices were exacerbating watershed problems; and (8) excessive runoff in some subwatersheds continued to degrade the main channel.

Based on the conclusions of the analysis, a broad range of treatments were prescribed and implemented. Some were active (e.g., construction of particular works or projects); others were more passive (e.g., adjustments to grazing strategies). Channel treatments such as small dams, gully headcut control structures, grade control structures, porous fence revetments (Figures 2, 3,and 4), and channel crossings (Figure 5) were used to affect flow regimes, channel stability, and water quality. Riparian plantings, riparian pastures, and beaver management programs were also established, and meander reestablishment and channel relocation were conducted. Land treatments, such as the establishment of best management practices (BMPs) for livestock, timber, roads, and fish and wildlife, were developed to prevent soil loss and maintain site productivity.

In a few cases, land and channel treatments were implemented simultaneously (e.g., livestock drift fences and seasonal area closures). Additional attention was paid to improved road management practices, and unnecessary roads were closed.

Results of the project have largely met its goals, and the watershed is more productive and enjoyable for a broad range of goods, services, and values. Although one weakness of the project was the lack of a carefully designed monitoring and evaluation plan, observers generally agree that the completed treatments continue to perform their designed function, while additional treatments add to the success of the project.

Most of the small in-channel structures are functioning as designed. The meander reestablishment has lengthened the channel and decreased gradient in a critical reach. The channel relocation project has just completed its first year, and initial results are promising. Beaver have established themselves along the main channel of Bluewater Creek, providing significant habitat for fish and wildlife, as their ponds capture sediment and moderate flood peaks. The watershed now provides a more varied and robust population of fish and wildlife species. Changes in road management have yielded significant results. Road closures have removed traffic from sensitive areas, and reconstruction of two key roads has reduced sediment damages to the stream. Special attention to road crossings of wet meadows has begun to rehabilitate scores of acres dewatered by improper crossings. Range management techniques (e.g., combined allotments, improved fencing, and more modern grazing strategies) are improving watershed condition. A limited timber management program on the federal property has had beneficial impacts on the watershed, but significant timber harvest on private lands provided a cause for concern, particularly regarding compliance with Clean Water Act best management practices.

The local citizens who use the watershed have benefited from the improved conditions. Recreation use continues to climb.

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Figure 1. Vehicle traffic through wet meadow in Bluewater Creek, NM (May 1984)

Such traffic compacts and damages soil, changes flow patterns, and induces gully erosion.

Recently installed porous fence treatment; Bluewater Creek, NM Revegetation during first growing season following porous fence treatment; Bluewater Creek, NM Revegetation after two growing seasons following porous fence treatment; Bluewater Creek, NM

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Figure 2. Recently installed treatment. (April 1987).

Porous fence revetments designed to reduce bank failure.

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Figure 3. Porous fence revetments aided by bank sloping. (August 1987).

The photo shows initial revegetation during first growing season following treatment installation.

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Figure 4. Porous fence revetments after two growing seasons. (September 1988).

Vegetation is noticeably established over first growing season.
Multiple elevated culvert array; Bluewater Creek, NM

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Figure 5. Multiple elevated culvert array at crossing of wet meadow. (June 1997).

The culvert spreads flow and decreases erosion energy, captures sediment upstream, reduces flood peaks, and prolongs baseflows.