Feds work with Santa Clara Pueblo on fire recovery

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The damage done to one Native American community's ancestral lands by the largest wildfire in New Mexico's recorded history is being assessed as part of a new agreement reached between tribal leaders and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

An agency contractor this week started collecting aerial photographs of the burned area along Santa Clara Pueblo's charred canyon as the first step in the watershed assessment.

Officials said the $1.8 million study is expected to take three years to complete. The findings will provide the basis for a long-term plan aimed at restoration and flood prevention.

The two partners were midway through a similar study when the Las Conchas blaze raced across more than 244 square miles of the Jemez Mountains this summer. The fire destroyed several dozen homes, threatened Los Alamos National Laboratory, burned through cultural sites and threatened an important water source for the pueblo.

"Now we're going back to square one," said Ron Kneebone, a tribal liaison with the Army Corps of Engineers. "We need new data on mapping because it has changed the geography of the watershed, it has changed the composition of the soils in the watershed, it has burned off all the vegetation. Whatever didn't burn is getting torn up every time it rains as floods happen."

Unlike the previous watershed assessment, Kneebone said the focus this time has expanded beyond restoration to include flood mitigation.

Situated at the mouth of Santa Clara Canyon, the pueblo faces the prospect of flood waters rushing into the community even with just a couple inches of rain, Kneebone said. He likened it to the community standing at the end of a fire hose.

"The fire is bad enough, but the aftermath of the fire is just as bad. The concerns will be around for years to come," he said.

The agreement is the first signed with a tribal government under the Army Corps of Engineers' tribal partnership program.

Under the program, a tribe can be awarded up to $1 million a year for water-related planning and to prioritize projects aimed at flood prevention, environmental restoration and the preservation of cultural resources.

The pueblo will cover 25 percent of the assessment's cost.

Nestled in the painted hills at the edge of the Pajarito Plateau, Santa Clara Pueblo has seen its share of fire over the past 13 years. About four-fifths of the tribe's forests have been burned by fires that started miles outside of the reservation's boundaries.

The Las Conchas fire was different because it moved so fast, tribal leaders have said.

Both the pueblo and members of New Mexico's congressional delegation have been pressing the federal government for help. Pueblo Gov. Walter Dasheno even testified in July before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

"Throughout this tragedy, the Santa Clara people have shown our grit and determination to persevere and to begin the long road to recovery so that, while my generation may never see the canyon in its glory again, that will not be said of the next generation," Dasheno told the committee.

Currently, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency are working to come up with a dollar figure for the damage done on the pueblo's land.

FEMA is also working with other New Mexico tribes that have been affected by the fire and post-fire flooding.

Thousands of sandbags and concrete barriers are still stationed around Santa Clara in case the region sees more rain this fall.

Kneebone said the pueblo could see as much as 15,000 cubic feet per second of water rushing through the canyon with just a couple of inches of rain.

"At this point, they are at nature's mercy," he said. "However, this agreement will help provide a solid plan for future protection measures."