Sandoval Signpost


An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
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Wild and scenic Rio Chama
—Photo credit: Ira Bolnick

The sudden ebb and flow of the Rio Chama

Rio Chama: a wild and scenic river?

—Ty Belknap

May and June have certainly been wild and crazy months for floating the Rio Chama. Take a look at the flow chart below that graphically illustrates the sudden and extreme changes in river level caused by releases from El Vado Dam. On different occasions, we experienced flows ranging from four thousand cubic feet per second (cfs) to under two hundred cfs. The flow rates are determined by inscrutable bureaucrats in order to provide water for municipal supply, irrigators, recreation, endangered Silvery Minnows, and Texas.

At very high flow rates, the rocks are covered and the rapids are washed out—it’s easier to row. At very low levels, the river is a boulder field. Sometimes you get stuck and are forced to get out and push. The recreational ideal is somewhere in between the two.

Rio Chama is about 120 miles long, beginning in the southern San Juan Mountains of Colorado. It is supplemented by the San Juan-Chama Project, which consists of a series of tunnels and diversions that take water from the drainage basin of the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River, to supply water resources in the Rio Grande watershed. It joins the Rio Grande near Española.

In 1978, the Chama was designated as a State Scenic and Pastoral River, thus designating part of the Santa Fe National Forest as Chama River Canyon Wilderness. Thirty-one miles of the river were further protected as a Federal Wild and Scenic River in 1988—the year I first canoed it. As far as we knew, permits were not required back then.

Now, it’s a big “New Mexico True” kind of attraction. Sometimes it seems that the water managers are at odds with other bureaucrats in charge of the state’s campaign to promote recreational tourism.

Commercial outfitters must have a special-use permit issued by the Bureau of Land Management Taos Field Office. Private boaters on the Wild portion, from El Vado to the Christ in the Desert Monastery are also required to have a BLM permit—usually for Friday through Sunday. No permit is required for the Scenic portion (which includes the best rapids and good camping) from below the monastery to the take-out above Abiquiu Lake.

Permits for weekend trips are in great demand. We haven’t won the annual lottery for many years, but get invited along with friends at least once a season. Sometimes you can call for a weekday permit.

This year, we got on a permit for the first week of May, which was then cancelled due to the low-flow rates that prevailed for most of the month. But we were invited on a trip later in May that was almost cancelled as well when they suddenly decided to open the dam, flowing a four-thousand cfs flush for the health of the watershed.

Barb and I had to finish the Signpost, so we missed the group launch for the trip. The next day, though, we got up early and took the two-hour drive on through Cuba and the back roads to the put-in below El Vado Dam. We launched our 12-foot inflatable raft and found the rest of our crew waiting just around the first bend. They had gotten a late start and prudently decided not to float on four thousand cfs after dark. By the time we joined them, the level was down to one thousand cfs, and we had to help drag their rafts about fifty feet to the river.

We took out at the muddy landing of one of the best camps for hiking and stayed there for two nights.

Meanwhile, they raised the level to 2,500 cfs and left it there for the rest of our trip—another night in the Wild section and a fast ride through the Scenic.

From home, we watched the graph as levels were stepped down and left at about one thousand cfs for two weeks into June—unbelievable good fortune!

It was simply irresistible, so we joined several friends at a campsite below the monastery for a couple of day trips down the Scenic section. Unfortunately, they picked the night before our put-in to drop the level to four hundred cfs, practically unnavigable, but enough fun to try again the next day, when, for some reason, they dropped it to three hundred cfs.

We managed to drag our rafts ashore near our camp just below Meandering Rapid, a long boulder field that was more boulder than water. The sun set, the temperature dropped into the sixties, the beer was cold, and we enjoyed another night in our favorite canyon wilderness.

As you can see by the graph, they raised the level to five hundred cfs to float permitted boaters through the weekend. It takes a while for the release to arrive downstream, but the water was there for us in the morning. They have now dropped the Wild and Scenic River to one hundred cfs, where it might remain until the monsoons.

National recreation study continues through September

—Donna Nemeth

Forest Service employees have been, and will continue to be, working in developed and dispersed recreation sites to talk with you about your visit to Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands. Surveys will take place on random days through September 2016 on the Sandia, Mt. Taylor, Magdalena, and Mountainair Ranger Districts, as well as the Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands, and the Black Kettle and McClellan Creek National Grasslands. Interviewers will be wearing bright orange vests, and the interview sites will be marked with orange safety cones and a sign saying “Traffic Survey Ahead.”

The data gathered in this survey will help with future planning efforts. It will allow us to assess the number of people that visit the Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands, the number of people that recreate on it, and the types of recreational activities that they engage in. Survey results will also provide input on the economic impact that visitors have on the local economy, how satisfied people are with their visit, and suggestions for improvements. The survey is completely voluntary and all information is confidential. The basic interview lasts approximately six minutes.

County Tourism Department releases new outdoor recreation guide

Just in time for the summer vacation season, the Sandoval County Tourism Department has released a new Outdoor Recreation Guide.

This four-page, full-color publication points out of some of the best Sandoval County locations for hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, playing golf and other fun things do under the sun. It’s the perfect travel companion for out-of-towners looking to explore the county as well as locals seeking to add some adventure to their weekends.

While the guide was released at the start of summer, it also includes information about fall and winter activities. There’s even a calendar of events highlighting various festivals and fiestas that take place around the county throughout the year—such as the Pork & Brew State Championships in Rio Rancho over the 4th of July weekend and the Mountain West Brew Fest in Bernalillo in September.

“We see the Outdoor Recreation Guide as a quick reference tool for people traveling about the county and looking for additional things to see and do,” said Antoinette Vigil, manager of the Sandoval County department of tourism and business development. “We also have a larger Visitor’s Guide that can be used to plan out a full Sandoval County adventure ahead of time. We hope these publications will help both tourists and locals have the kinds of experiences that will make them want to explore our county again and again.”

Both guides are available at the Sandoval County Visitor’s Center, 264 S. Camino Del Pueblo, in Bernalillo, or on the county tourism department’s website:

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