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Rio Puerco Watershed

The Rio Puerco has achieved worldwide notoriety as a severely impacted and degraded watershed, the poster child for accelerated erosion. Its perennial headwaters originate along the Sierra Nacimiento east of Cuba, in Sandoval County, New Mexico. Traditional villages once dotted its banks and extensive farm fields tapped its waters. Today, in many places the Rio Puerco flows far beneath the historic floodplain, a victim of incision through highly erodable soils, channelization, entrenchment, historically poor land management, and a complex mix of land ownership.

The Rio Puerco Basin is the largest tributary to the Middle Rio Grande Basin. Positioned along the eastern edge of the Continental Divide, the watershed encompasses approximately 7,350 square miles (4.7 million acres/over 1.9M hectares) that flow into the Rio Grande at Bernardo, NM. The Rio Puerco Basin includes nine sub-watersheds, draining portions of seven counties, west of the greater Rio Grande Basin in the northwest and west-central portions of the state. The geology of the area includes soft sedimentary strata, intruded and capped by younger volcanic rocks.

Problems and Threats to the Watershed
The Rio Puerco watershed is the primary source of undesirable fine sediment that is annually delivered to the Rio Grande system. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Rio Puerco transports one of the world's highest average annual sediment concentrations. The Corps of Engineers has noted that soil erosion within the watershed surpasses that of any other watershed in the country, yielding 1.36 acre-feet per square mile per year.

The Rio Puerco is listed as a Category 1 watershed (in need of restoration) in New Mexico's Unified Watershed Assessment (1998). Several reaches of the Rio Puerco and its tributaries are listed as impaired by the New Mexico Environment Department. Specific pollutants include turbidity, temperature, stream bottom deposits, plant nutrients, as well as individual listings for pH and metals. The causes of impairment include removal of riparian vegetation, upland and/or riparian grazing, habitat modification, bank destabilization, agriculture, forest practices, roads, mining and resource extraction, highway maintenance and runoff, and local instances of hydro-modification.

The root causes of this pollution are a prime concern to the RPMC and its cooperators, including, but not limited to the following conditions:
  • An abundance of highly erosive materials making up the region's surface geology
  • An arid climate prone to sudden, flashy, high energy summer monsoon runoff events.
  • Stream channel modifications that lead to straightening, bank collapse and accelerated uplands and tributary headcutting processes.
  • Grazing management on rangelands, woodlands, and riparian areas that has reduced soil cover.
  • A combination of urban and rural roads development that leads to drainage modification, accelerated runoff and soil erosion.

Inclusive of Stakeholders

The RPMC facilitates an ongoing collaborative process of restoration and management within the Rio Puerco Watershed. The priority of RPMC members is to support projects in the watershed that reflect people's sense of stewardship, and preserve the natural beauty and traditional uses of this region. This working landscape needs to support community development, productive ranching, and commercial and traditional land uses.