Santa Fe County's only public access to the Rio Grande would undergo environmental restoration and get improved facilities if a proposed project gets the green light from federal officials this spring.
A pair of nonprofits called the New Mexico Wildlife Federation and Rio Grande Return already have spent about $200,000 of private and public money on plans for what it calls the Rio Grande Corridor at Buckman.
The aim, said project manager Alan Hamilton, is to help the local community re-establish its connection to the river on land that is already in the hands of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
"Let's ensure that the place is cleaned up and make it a place where people can go and learn about the geology and the hydrology and the history and the culture and the environment," Hamilton said. "This river is the lifeblood of this state."
Another main goal of the project, he said, is to cut down on litter from visitors who use the area as a party spot. Early meetings about the proposal revealed that some people don't visit the area because of its reputation for beer drinking and gun shooting. A volunteer cleanup this fall of a small area yielded 2.5 tons of garbage, most of it broken bottles and discarded tires.
"We want to give it some love and make it look like it's being taken care of," Hamilton said. "We'd like to discourage irresponsible kinds of users."
Planned amenities are intended to help hikers, rafters, rock climbers, horseback riders and others who want to enjoy the natural world with minimal impact.
At Diablo Canyon, plans call for designated camping areas and a gravel parking lot to replace a sandy network of places where motorized vehicles have torn up the landscape near the mouth of the canyon. A kiosk for trail maps and other information would be constructed. Restoration in the canyon itself would include removing invasive species from near natural springs there, and rearranging boulders to provide erosion control and to protect the canyon from all-terrain vehicles.
At the area near the Buckman Direct Diversion intake for Santa Fe's community water system, access roads would end at another gravel parking lot, and a boat launch would be installed. About 18 acres of riparian bosque area would see habitat restoration, including planting of native cottonwood trees and willows, and removal of salt cedars, elms and Russian olives.
In addition to restoring land it would lease from the federal agencies, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation also would complete restoration around the diversion site, which was required when officials granted the city and county permission to build the facilities for drawing and treating surface water from the river.
Rick Carpenter, who serves as the city project manager for the $250 million Buckman water supply pipeline and treatment plant, said the restoration partnership is good because it creates a larger area that will get environmental improvements. Another reason to support the effort is to cut down on illegal activities, he said, noting that the water project board hired private security guards to patrol the area near the diversion.
Federal officials gave environmental clearance for the restoration and amenities last year, but just before the end of an appeal period for the final approval, a group called Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety objected.
The appeal centers on two issues: whether sediment containing nuclear waste will be disturbed during the project and jeopardize workers and future visitors, and whether herbicide proposed to control regrowth of invasive species should be used.
Materials the group circulated to publicize the appeal refer to the area as "Plutonium Park." At a recent meeting of the Buckman Direct Diversion Board, several people asked local officials to intervene.
"There is nuclear bomb waste buried 3 to 6 feet deep within 8 acres upriver from the Buckman Direct Diversion within the recreation areas," said Elena Sue St. Pierre. "We continue to ask that these facts be incorporated into the public information for construction workers, park staff safety and pregnant women and babies if this plan proceeds."
St. Pierre, also an organizer with a group called Healthy Water Now, said she's not against "park rangers with good intentions," but she wants the U.S. Department of Energy to be held accountable for cleaning up soils that contain contaminants from 1940s weapons research at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Among other recommendations, the appeal asks for more data collection and a plan to isolate, contain and stabilize soils that contain nuclear waste. The group also wants signs placed at the site to warn visitors.
Meanwhile, nearly two dozen other groups in the conservation arena asked Concerned Citizens to withdraw its appeal because the review from federal officials found the project will "benefit the environment and local communities without putting anyone working or recreating in the areas at risk."
"This [environmental assessment] represents more than six years of careful planning, public outreach and coordination and we would like to see this project move forward toward implementation as soon as possible," reads the letter signed by WildEarth Guardians, Audubon New Mexico, the Trust for Public Land, the Santa Fe Conservation Trust, the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, the Los Alamos Study Group and others.
Hamilton said the nuclear nickname isn't accurate. Already, project planners have conducted additional testing and made changes to its plan to accommodate questions about radioactive contaminants that were raised during early planning stages, he said.
The U.S. Forest Service will determine in mid-February whether to require changes to the proposal. If the appeal is denied, work would begin this spring.
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