My Turn

Opinion: Livestock grazing adds to river woes

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Taos Town Councilor Fritz Hahn's My Turn about lack of opportunity in Taos struck a chord with me. I love to hear from people who are looking out for the up-and-coming generation of Taoseños.

Hahn also deserves credit for seeking to revitalize the acequias around town, and supporting kitchen gardens and farmers market culture. But I must say, some of his comments seemed faith-based, not fact-based.

To condense Hahn's words a bit, he said "If our ditch system is revitalized ..." renewed town surface waters will drain to the "parched lands to the west. The upper aquifer will be recharged ..."

That is quite a leap of faith. It is unrealistic to believe that the upper aquifer will be recharged if intensive federal grazing continues on the stream banks of the upper Rio Fernando.

What do I mean by "intensive federal grazing"? Forest service guidelines call for grazing down to "4-inch stubble" on all stream banks and wetlands. That's intensive.

And if you are worried that the bacteria levels on the upper Rio Fernando are too high now, get this: The permittee is allowed under this particular grazing contract to double the size of his existing herd - up to 131 cow/calf pairs (262 animals) plus six bulls. Obviously, that would be a huge increase in livestock impacts on these vulnerable stream banks. Unfortunately, like all our other elected representatives, Barrone and Hahn are keeping their lips zipped about the water problems on the Rio Fernando headwaters, at least until after the next election. They seem oblivious to the Environment Department decision back in 2014 that listed livestock grazing as the probable source of the E. coli impairment on the upper Rio Fernando. As elected officials, what have they done about this threat to our surface water?

Speaking of watersheds, I noticed that El Rito District Ranger Jim Gumm has stated in The Taos News that "smaller, weaker trees suck up water from the mountains like a million straws." He said they should be removed to make room for "bigger, healthier trees."

I guess Ranger Gumm thinks the bigger trees don't have that pesky sucking habit. Maybe they outgrow it. Or are the big, strong trees even thirstier than the little guys? Are our national forests net water losers, which should be cut down to save water?

According to the sucking tree scenario, trees may be competing with downstream water users for limited water resources. That is a convenient theory if you want to cut down more trees to increase grazing acreage on federal land.

Ranger Gumm said that under Forest Service policy, "Encroaching trees are pruned from the edges of delicate ... wetlands." Of course, Gumm didn't really mean he wants to prune stream bank trees, like pruning an apple tree. Forest Service planners want to cut down those trees to allow more sunlight and better access to "delicate wetlands" for livestock grazing.

But taking down trees that have shaded Rio Fernando stream banks and marshes for decades and exposing more stream miles to the high desert sun and wind (and cattle) would only aggravate the water losses caused by current federal practices.

Reducing the vegetative cover even further on Rio Fernando stream banks and wetlands would be a misguided, very bad policy in the new Carson Forest plan. Fewer trees, shrubs, and tall grasses would diminish the holding capacity of the upper aquifer that Fritz Hahn mentioned, reducing year-round flows to Taos ditches and wells.

That would be bad for parciantes (water rights holders) and the thousands of other Taos water users who are depending on this historic river. Including the new Holiday Inn Express.

Yeargin is a longtime Taos County resident and a member of Taos United.

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