For the third summer, Cuba High School sponsored a Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) program that employed thirteen students and recent graduates in outdoor work on public lands near Cuba. Through the program, students have an opportunity to learn hands-on restoration and job skills while contributing to their local community. This year, YCC Coordinator Carol Chavez collaborated again with the Rio Puerco Management Committee (RPMC) and Steve Fischer, Watershed Coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Albuquerque, to schedule six weeks of erosion control work on BLM land within the Rio Puerco watershed.
The Rio Puerco watershed, once known as the "breadbasket of New Mexico," has been severely degraded by high erosion rates. Today, the Rio Puerco transports one of the highest average annual concentrations of sediment in the world, which has caused a decline in both water quality and agricultural yield. Much of the erosion in the watershed begins in the uplands as relatively small gullies and rills. Simple, low-tech, low-cost structures can be built in these gullies to slow water flow, catch sediment, and allow vegetation to grow - which in turn helps keep soil in place.
This summer, the YCC crew learned a number of innovative erosion control and water harvesting techniques using rock and brush. The group, led by Cuba HS teacher Fabian Cordova, applied these methods to gullies and headcuts at a site 7 miles south of Cuba (the 2005 YCC site) as well as at two springs near the Arroyo Chijuilla. Consultants Steve Vrooman and Craig Sponholtz designed the restoration work. Aaron Kauffman, the field and technical supervisor for RPMC, helped plan structures as well.
Working in two teams and sometimes in smaller groups, the crew accomplished a tremendous amount of restoration. They utilized about 100 tons of rock to hand-construct 122 water-harvesting stone structures, the majority of which were one-rock dams. One-rock dams consist of several rows of rock, laid across the channel, that are only one rock tall. By slowing water down and allowing sediment to deposit, one-rock dams help raise the elevation of the gully bed and provide a moist place for plants to grow. The crew also built filter dams, which serve a similar function. Media lunas, which are essentially rock mulches laid along the contour of the land, were used to spread water on flatter landscapes. The students made over 40 media lunas out of juniper brush as well.
In small, straight channels, the YCC crew created both rock and brush baffles to deflect flow to the opposite bank and create meanders. Stream flow is slower in a meandering channel, which decreases erosion potential. Finally, the students treated three headcuts by digging them back to a gentler slope and lining them with rock bowls. Rock bowls lessen the impact of water as it flows over headcuts, prevent further scouring, and help conserve soil moisture for plant growth.
In addition to rock and brush structures, these strong students hand-built four cross-drains on the road up to one worksite. The drains direct water flow across the road rather than down it. The crew also repaired fence protecting a spring, constructed fences around structures from 2005 for monitoring, and cleaned up trash around San Gregorio Lake.
Many students felt they learned useful skills, especially in land restoration, through the challenging work. Nick Montoya mentioned that he now knows "how to help vegetation, ... construct one-rock dams to collect sediment, and ... help the environment." Similarly, Vanessa Toledo noted that the erosion control work she's been doing "helps keep grasses alive for the animals." Anselmo Gallegos acknowledges that he wouldn't necessarily know where to place each rock structure, but he would definitely have an idea about how to treat different erosion problems. Teacher Fabian Cordova, who also led the YCC crew on last year's RPMC project, has already started building small rock structures in gullies on his own ranch land and has constructed water diversions where 4-wheeler trailing had increased erosion.
Both Steve Vrooman and Aaron Kauffman were impressed with the quality of work this year's YCC crew achieved on the RPMC project. "You can already see some really strong regeneration of grasses," Kauffman noticed a month and a half into the project, which is a testament to the success of this crew's work. Kauffman, a Santa Fe native, appreciated the chance to work with the students and also get to know Cuba a little better. Vrooman hopes the crew will help "spread the knowledge throughout the community" by showing friends and family how these methods can be applied to erosion problems on their own lands. As crew member Victoria Dominguez pointed out about erosion, "If you don't take care of it early, it's [going to] get worse."