River Keeping in New Mexico

Posted on Categories Discover Magazine

Volunteers across the country participate in River Keeper programs. Photo: Virginia State Parks CC BY 2.0

River Keeper. Watershed Keeper. There’s something poetic—maybe a bit Celtic—about these terms, which in the world of citizen science refer to someone monitoring a waterway for soil erosion, contaminants, and loss of biodiversity. Across the United States, with sonorous names like Willamette River Keepers and Chattahoochee River Keepers, citizen scientists are keeping watch over the environmental health of our rivers, lakes, and estuaries.

Where I live in southwestern New Mexico, the Silver City Watershed Keepers are mostly teenagers—a high school class and their dedicated teacher, Maddie Alfero, organized by a local environmental group, Gila Resources Information Project (GRIP), with support from the New Mexico Environmental Department. A GRIP staff member, A.J. Sandoval, coordinates the program. A retired Environmental Department staff member, Dave Menzie, acts as their Quality Assurance Officer.

Every three months, the students and any interested volunteer look at four sites along the San Vicente Creek that runs through downtown Silver City, a municipal area of about 20,000 people. The perennial part of this stream is partially spring-fed, shaded by cottonwood and elm, buzzing in a drowsy summer with bees, home to ravens and owls and warblers and woodpeckers, as well as visiting deer, javelina, bobcat, and coyote.

For these Watershed Keepers, San Vicente Creek is also rich with human history. The Mimbreños who lived here over a thousand years ago left behind the remains of their homes and their pottery, still prized for its elegant black lines painted on a white background: narrative scenes of cranes spearing fish, women giving birth, and fantastical creatures half-snake, half-bighorn sheep. The Apaches who came after the Mimbreños, including the well-known Geronimo, also camped by the lush springs. In the nineteenth century, Mexican and Anglo miners were attracted to this highly mineralized area, and the town of Silver City—home to twelve-year-old Billy the Kid—was built partly on the floodplain north of the springs. Eventually, water rushing down from nearby hills overgrazed by cattle began to cut a path right through Main Street with its Victorian homes, stores, and hotels. In 1902, a final torrent swept away entire buildings and incised a deep channel known today as the Big Ditch Park. Since then, the floods have abated, although the San Vicente Creek can still roar with snow run-off and monsoon rains.

In 2010, the Silver City Watershed Keepers were formed, in part to monitor any leakage from mine tailings near the creek. The Silver City Reduction Works was a historic smelter operating from the 1880s into the 1940s. Although the Environmental Protection Agency has built berms to contain the mining residue— which has measurably high levels of lead, zinc, copper, cyanide, and arsenic—breaches can still occur. The Keepers keep a special watch on the water quality and presence of toxic chemicals near these old tailings.

Downtown Silver City, NM. Photo: Jimmy Emerson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Downtown Silver City, NM. Photo: Jimmy Emerson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Like all Keepers, the high school students also look at the general health of the stream. They use their turbidity meter to check for suspended solids—how muddy or murky the water is—and they note new erosion along the stream banks. They measure PH, salinity, and temperature. They measure conductivity, the ability of water to pass an electric current. Changes in conductivity can indicate that some discharge or pollutant has entered the stream. They measure dissolved oxygen, the amount of O2 available for plant and animal life. They watch for new invasive plant and animal species. They record any illegal dumping of trash, including the odd appliance or mattress, and household and constructions wastes like motor oil or paint. And they test for the presence of bacteria like E. coli.

The Keepers’ data is posted on their website and given to the state every year. “The state of New Mexico can only do this kind of monitoring every seven years,” A.J. Sandoval explains, “so they appreciate our efforts.” On its part, the New Mexico Environmental Department has donated equipment to the group and sent staff to give demonstrations and public lectures about stream flow and hydrology, riparian ecosystems, and the impact of humans on the environment.

River Keepers and Watershed Keepers. Keepers of the flame. Keepers of turbidity. Upkeep. Keep the faith. Keep your head when all about you are losing theirs. Keep your hands clean and on the wheel. Keep: a medieval tower designed for protection and defense. Keep a steady course. Keep on trucking. Keep, please, our waters healthy and flowing for all life on Earth, human and animal and plant, and for all generations to come. As a Celt might say: Mo sheacht mbeannacht ort! 

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