It’s morn­ing for a living river


“Should I call 9-1-1?” for­mer Santa Fe city plan­ner Mar­ian Shirin called down. From a pedes­trian bridge near Alto Park, a quizzi­cal con­cern in­fused her face.

“Naw, it’s prob­a­bly not a dead body,” I shouted up from the Santa Fe River’s dry bed. “It would smell. Wouldn’t it?”

“Why don’t you open it, honey, and see?” my wife asked, stand­ing safely next to Mar­ian.

“Yeah, Daddy! Open it!” my boys screamed.

My wife, our two boys, Mar­ian, and I had just spent two hours par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Santa FeWater­shed As­so­ci­a­tion’s event, Love Your River Day. Scores of vol­un­teers had been de­ployed to var­i­ous sec­tions of the river to pick up trash. We’d filled our bags and were done.

But when we re­grouped­with­Mar­ian, she said she’d dis­cov­ered a bulky bag pro­trud­ing from the bot­tom of a re­tain­ing wall. “Maybe you can get it out, Nate. It’s down there,” she pointed from the bridge. “You can’t miss it.”

My boys and I scram­bled down the steep slope, found it, and yanked. And pulled. We yanked again. As we dragged the clunky, six-foot sausage out, for a sec­ond I thought we might all soon be heav­ing vi­o­lently at the sight of a zom­bie-faced corpse. I haven’t watched cop shows in decades, but sud­denly I thought I’d be call­ing in a mur­der.

Ac­cord­ing to lore, no one knows when the Santa Fe River stopped flow­ing, but it’s pretty hard to imag­ine the Ace­quia Madre and all of her re­la­tions be­ing built for any pur­pose but to ir­ri­gate from a wet river. Did the Santa Fe croak with the de­struc­tion of the last beaver dam? Was the river’s death a grad­ual chok­ing process spawned by ever-en­croach­ing as­phalt roads, con­crete side­walks, and tar-and­gravel roofs? Per­haps it was killed with the con­struc­tion of our city’s es­sen­tial reser­voirs.

In a sense, our river died for all three rea­sons, but we can bring it back to life. It will be a long process, but if we see stormwa­ter runoff as a re­source that can be di­rected into the ground to the root zones of ap­pro­pri­ate plant­ma­te­rial, we can recre­ate the con­di­tions that made the river healthy in its an­te­bel­lum­state.

When we con­sider our in­tense pre­cip­i­ta­tion, our goal must be to “slow it, flow it, and growit.” Slowrunoff and flow it into the soil where it can be grown into healthy veg­e­ta­tion. This veg­e­ta­tion then helps slow more stormwa­ter. In­stead of run­ning off into a dead river car­ry­ing sed­i­ment that de­stroys ri­par­ian ar­eas, the wa­ter will make it to th­ese ar­eas at a more steady and grad­ual pace sim­i­lar to what hap­pened to the wa­ter­shed dur­ing the pre­ced­ing mil­len­nia.

“It might be eas­ier if we keep the bag closed­while we drag what­ever it is up!” I pro­claimed.

“You don’t want to move a dead body, Nate!” “Okay, boy. Open it.” For­tu­nately, it was just a weird bag full of old couch parts. We knew we couldn’t rebuild the couch, but we were glad we could begin to bring our river back to life.

Nate Downey, the au­thor of Har­vest the Rain, has been a lo­cal land­scape con­sul­tant, designer, and con­trac­tor since 1992. He can be reached at 505-690-7939 or via www.per­made­

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