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N.M. aims to balance nature, humanity

Roberto Rosales/Albuquerque Journal

This lookout deck next to a pond west of Tingley Beach near Albuquerque is part of the Middle Rio Grande Restoration Project. The deck makes it easier for people to watch birds without spooking them.

By JOHN FLECK
Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE (AP) – The canvasbacks, red-headed immigrant ducks, had already made their winter arrival by the time ecologist Ondrea Hummel checked her wildlife ponds in Albuquerque’s bosque earlier this month.

Hummel, who works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is part of the team of federal and local officials working on a major habitat-restoration project along this stretch of river. Their goal is to find a balance between the needs of nature and the desire of humans to reconnect to the Rio Grande and the riparian woods that flank the great river as it flows through the middle of New Mexico’s largest urban area.

The ponds themselves, in the cottonwood forest between Albuquerque’s Tingley Beach park and the Rio Grande, were one of the first steps in a sweeping effort to use government money and human engineering to intervene to help an ecosystem left badly out of whack by changes in the way the Rio Grande is managed.

Built four years ago, the ponds have been a success, with 194 species of birds catalogued in, and around, the artificial wetland.

This fall and winter, the next phase of the project is bringing new walking trails, bridges over the little creek flowing through the site, and new bird blinds to make it easier for people to watch the wildlife without spooking the birds.

“Get some people access,” Hummel explained, “but make sure we have habitat for the critters, too.”

The work on the 68-acre site adjacent to the Albuquerque Country Club and Tingley Beach also includes cleaning out concrete and other debris from what was once an informal Albuquerque dump site. Workers already have removed 10,000 cubic yards of debris, Hummel said, and visitors used to sidestepping the great piles of detritus scattered among the cottonwoods can already see the difference.

The site is one of 11 totaling about 650 acres along the river between Sandia Pueblo on the north and Isleta Pueblo on the south where work is under way, funded by a $13 million federal appropriation, according to Hummel. A second phase of the work could add another eight sites and 350 acres if funding can be found.

The riverside ecosystem has been permanently changed by river management, including Cochiti Dam upstream that reduces flooding and levees that confine a river that once wandered the valley floor into a narrow channel.

As a result, an ecosystem once made up of patches of forest interspersed with wetlands, marshy areas and grasslands has been replaced by a narrow ribbon of cottonwood forest.

“The existence in recent decades of a continuous bosque forest, extending between the river and the levee, appears to be unprecedented,” according to a Corps report.

While restoration to the pre-dam and levee era is impossible, the habitat restoration work is an effort to mimic some of what nature once provided.

The Corps of Engineers is the lead agency for the work, with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the city of Albuquerque and a number of other government entities involved.

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