Deputy Secretary Connor Tours Santa Clara Pueblo Lands in New Mexico Damaged by Forest Fires and Floods

Last edited 09/29/2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael Connor today visited the Santa Clara Pueblo in north central New Mexico to meet with tribal officials and tour pueblo lands that have been severely impacted by wildland fire and seasonal flooding.

Joining Deputy Secretary Connor during his visit were Regis Chavarria, Santa Clara Tribal Sheriff; Mike Hamman, Bureau of Reclamation; Lt. Colonel Dagon, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Phillip Parks, Federal Emergency Management Agency; and various tribal officials.

“The scarring and watershed damage that we see here in the Santa Clara Pueblo underscores the need for added attention and resources toward lands and watersheds that have been affected by fires and flooding,” said Connor. “Watershed restoration has been a key part of the President's Climate Action Plan, and we continue to be committed to working with partners across the country to restore the health and resiliency of our forests and water sources.”

During his visit, Connor was briefed by Sheriff Chavarria on the status of the damaged lands and additional costs incurred by the community, including the Santa Clara Police Department, which has provided assistance to the Tribal Emergency Management program in dealing with the fire and fire scars. BIA officials briefed Connor on the assistance provided and current status of federal recovery projects in the area.

The Las Conchas wildland fire started on June 26, 2011, eventually burning more than 156,000 acres in northern New Mexico, including 16,587 acres of Santa Clara Pueblo lands in Santa Clara Canyon. The fires also burned land belonging to Ohkay Owinghe, San Ildefonso, Pojoaque Jemez, Cochiti, Kewa, as well as National Forest System and National Park Service lands. Seventy-eight percent of these lands were considered to have moderate to high burn severity.

President Obama's FY15 Budget proposed a new approach to addressing wildfire suppression costs. The new proposal would set aside an emergency fund, similar to emergency funds already available for other natural disasters, so that when firefighting costs exceed the annual fire suppression budget, funding would be drawn from the emergency fund rather than requiring other budgets be raided. This new approach provides certainty in addressing growing fire suppression needs while better safeguarding prevention, maintenance and forest health programs from fund transfers that have diminished their effectiveness.

As part of the visit, Deputy Secretary Connor was also briefed on how flooding activity has delayed the burned land's recovery. Four dam structures located in the main channel of Santa Clara Canyon have contributed to flooding activity for the last three seasons. In the first full year after the fire, significant flooding occurred during the summer monsoon season with estimated flows from 5,000 to 9,000 cubic feet per second, overwhelming the individual dam spillway capacity. This, coupled with the reduced reservoir capacity, resulted in embankment over topping and dam stability degradation.

Santa Clara Pueblo is one of 19 pueblos in New Mexico. The reservation lies on 76.73 square miles of southern Rio Arriba, northeastern Sandoval, and northern Santa Fe Counties. The total population living on Santa Clara Pueblo land as of the 2000 census was 10,658 persons. Most of the population lives in the northeastern corner of the reservation.

In the Western United States, the number of large fires and the area burned has increased several – fold in recent decades. Between 1980 and 2011, the average annual number of fires on Federal Land more than doubled, and the total area burned tripled. The second worst fire season on record was in 2012, with 9.3 million acres consumed by wildfire.

The fire season is now nearly three months longer than it was 40 years ago, and the numbers of fires are not only increasing, but are more destructive. Climate change, increased fuel loads on public and private lands, and more building and settlement in fire-prone areas are all contributing factors.

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