Saturday, May 17, 2008
Protecting natural resources is their assignment
Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District has a big job to do
Julia M. Dendinger News-Bulletin Staff Writer; firstname.lastname@example.org
The rain from early Wednesday put a smile on Ross Coleman’s face. A biologist and plant supplier from
Edgewood, Coleman and his two-man planting crews were in Belen bright and early that morning to
begin planting grass on a pond bank.
The pond in question is at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area, 97-acres of oxbow wetlands that are
now under the stewardship of the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District (VSWCD).
District board of supervisors chairman Marcel Reynolds and newly appointed board member Dr. Teresa
Smith de Cherif joined Coleman at the pond on a chilly, overcast morning. As they walked the perimeter
of the water, Reynolds and Smith de Cherif explained just what the district does and why it is so
important that the public be involved with its works.
Soil and water conservation districts are independent subdivisions of state government governed by
boards of supervisors, local landowners and residents elected or appointed to the board for four-year
According to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s Web site, a district is authorized by the Soil
and Water Conservation District Act to conserve and develop the natural resources of the state, provide
for flood control, preserve wildlife, protect the tax base and promote the health, safety and general
welfare of the people of New Mexico.
SWCDs coordinate assistance from all available sources — public and private, local, state and federal —
in an effort to develop locally driven solutions to local natural resource concerns. Forty-seven districts
encompass the majority of New Mexico’s land area.
What the district does
Through the ’80s and ’90s, Reynolds said, the work done by the district was mostly agricultural. “We did
things like helping farmers get funds through the Natural Resources Conservation Service for land
leveling and soil conservation improvements,” he said. “That is still a major role of the district.”
Reynolds said the district is also supposed to work with the county to review subdivisions and zoning
changes to help determine the impact those requests would have on the area as a whole.
“We are actually one of the 12 agencies that are supposed to say yay or nay on subdivisions,” Smith de
Reynolds said that the district did the land use study for the county that helped implement the two-acre
minimums in the valley. “Large tracts of land were being broken up fairly frequently, so we helped
establish the two-acre minimums and the agriculture preservation zones,” he said. “Farmers would stop
farming for whatever reason, and it was hard to sell a large parcel.
“We saw a lot of the agricultural preservation zones being broken up and were able to get the county to
stop at five acres for the minimum size. A lot of times, these lands are subdivided and the water rights are
sold, so there is no way to get water to them anymore – you end up with two acres of weeds.”
Smith de Cherif pointed out that the reason for preserving these larger parcels within the greenbelt is to
recharge the aquifer. “We live in a desert, and our water resources are increasingly taxed as the
population grows,” she said. “If we don’t replenish the aquifer, we won’t have an aquifer.”
Another part of the district’s responsibilities is to liaise with those doing the planning in the community,
Smith de Cherif said. For instance, Tim Karpoff, the individual doing the public outreach for the county’s
water-wastewater master plan study, came to the district to present the study’s findings and get input from
the board of supervisors, she said.
“We need to establish a partnership in this process. This plan is going to be a model for the whole state,”
Smith de Cherif said. “We need to take into consideration how important it is to make these partnerships
and talk with people with experience and vision.”
The district also partners with the local schools, Reynolds said. For several years now, local science
teacher Molly Madden has been working with the district on the bosque ecological monitoring stations.
“These are a series of wells in the bosque along the river that monitor ground water,” Reynolds said.
“There are two wells south of Reinken and two north of Whitfield. One area has been cleared of salt cedar
and the other is back in the woods. This gives a good basis for comparison.”
Reynolds said this project is ideal for school-age children to get to do field work; they take the
temperature, measure the wind velocity and take various other readings on the environment around the
This kind of hands-on science at Whitfield and the Bosque monitoring stations is something that Smith de
Cherif feels can only benefit the community at large. “The biggest asset of this project is that elementary
through college age students can help and be involved,” she said. “The Whitfield project is ongoing, so
we are going to need help in everything from plantings to guided tours when it’s finished. There is so
much opportunity for learning through these projects.”
The district also supports local youth and learning through scholarships and by paying the costs of
educational camps held by New Mexico State Forestry.
The Dan Goodman scholarship is presented to high school students who are involved in ecology, water
and soil preservation. It has a $500 award, and students can win the scholarship twice during their collage
The trail system that runs through the bosque is also another project that is near and dear to the district’s
heart. While the current activities on the trail system are mostly under the sponsorship of the Mid-Region
Council of Governments (MRCOG), Reynolds says the district is part of the discussion.
“On the trails from Albuquerque to Belen, they have pretty well defined which levees they want to use for
trails,” he said. “One day I went out with Lawrence Rael, the executive director of MRCOG, and we
walked the trails south down to Rio Abajo. The nice thing there is you wouldn’t have to stay on the
levees; you could go down into the bosque.”
The Rio Abajo Conservation Area is south of Belen. The district is finishing up the final administrative
details before beginning work on the Rio Abajo area. Reynolds also said there are plans to bring the trail
system up from El Paso to Belen. “The governor is behind the project,” he said.
And the district also helps farmers, both large and small, with their soil and water needs. For small
landowners who are interested in establishing agricultural development on their land, Reynolds said, the
first step is to get a water supply to the property. “We have helped put in pipelines to property that had
been cut off from irrigation,” he said. “One thing that is unique about the district is we can form
partnerships with everyone from the federal government down to individuals. No other agency can do
that, so we can partner with many different people to get things accomplished.”
Smith de Cherif would like to implement a district program to help small farmers get access to the
equipment they need without the expense of buying.
“A lot of small landowners don’t have the capital for equipment that they might only use once,” she said.
“I would like to see if we could establish a rental program through the district.
“If you look at the rising cost of food and food stock for animals and fuel, I think growing locally is going
to be an option many people will want to have.”
What can you do to help?
If you want to help the district, there is one simple way to do that – be involved. “We are asking for input
from the public,” Smith de Cherif said. “Come and inform us. The community needs to be involved from
the children up to our elders, who often have the most sage advice.”
She is hopeful that projects such as Whitfield will involve the youth of the community and get them
invested in their surroundings and build awareness of the importance of larger tracts of agricultural and
“If they are invested, they are more likely to maintain it and less likely to turn it into smaller and smaller
parcels,” Smith de Cherif said. “We are hoping that, by putting in work on these projects, they will
appreciate what’s basically in their own backyard.”
Another project Smith de Cherif is passionate about and would like public involvement in is the cleaning
of the local irrigation ditches. “I haven’t been here that long, but there are swamp coolers, furniture, dead
animals, live animals — all kinds of things just thrown into the ditches,” she said. “The ditches are our
walking paths; we can turn them into a beautiful area where people can walk by and observe wildlife.”
The lack of community involvement and awareness of the district was made apparent during the
conservation board’s last election — an election that didn’t actually take place. “We had two vacancies,
and Dr. Smith de Cherif was the only one who expressed interest,” Reynolds said. “If there are no protests
in cases like this, the interested party can be appointed to the position.
“It’s all within the election rules and laws that we have to follow. This just allows the district to save on
the expense of having to hold an election in these cases.”
Smith de Cherif again emphasized the need for people of all interests and experience to participate in and
be involved with the district. “If we are to do our jobs of conserving the soil and water of Valencia
County, we have to have help from the public,” she said. “It is so important for the public to seek out
niches of key interest.”
She went on to say that, as the newcomer, it’s really great thinking about how there are 47 districts in the
state. “This is an organized group on the ground who are committed to keeping a healthy environment in
New Mexico,” Smith de Cherif said. “In this area, it is very critical. We live on the border of a major
metro area and are being pressured to lose our ruralness. That wouldn’t be ecologically sound. I am not
against development and neither is the district, but we want to see sound development.”