State of New Mexico > Environment Department > Surface Water Quality Bureau

Surface Water Quality Bureau
Surface Water Quality in
the Rio Chama Watershed

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The Rio Chama Watershed

The Rio Chama Watershed (USGS Hydrologic Unit Code 13020102) is a sub-basin of the Upper Rio Grande Basin. The watershed covers approximately 3,075 square miles (7,964 square kilometers) in north-central New Mexico. This largely circular area is bounded on the north by the Colorado/New Mexico State Line for about 12.75 miles (20.5 km), and extends south approximately 68 miles (110 km) to the Cerro de la Garta Ridge of the northern Jemez Mountains’ Valles Caldera.  The western boundary is the Continental Divide, separating the Rio Chama Watershed from the San Juan Basin.

Political Boundaries
Except for a small portion that extends into southern Colorado, most of this watershed is within the political boundaries of Rio Arriba County and includes the villages of Chama, Tierra Amarilla, Cañones, Cebolla, Canjilon, Abiquiu, Coyote, El Rito, Vallecitos as well as portions of the Jicarilla Apache Indian Nation in the north, and the Ohkay Owingeh and Santa Clara pueblos in the south.

Taos County takes up a small allotment on the southeastern boundary, while a tiny spur of Sandoval County is found in the far southwestern quadrant.  Approximately one-third of surface area of the watershed is privately owned (ownership by the Jicarilla Apache Indian Nation as well as the Ohkay Owingeh and Santa Clara pueblos is included here as privately owned). The remaining two-thirds are publicly-held lands by the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Defense, National Park Service, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF), and the State Land Office.

US Highway 84 bisects this sparsely populated watershed following the Rio Chama in the southeast until reaching the northern end of Abiquiu Reservoir where it takes on a north-south route through the center of the watershed.  This important conduit connects most of the villages of this region.  In the far north, Highway 84 merges with east-west US 64 at Tierra Amarilla and turns east-west at the village of Chama to meet the watershed boundary about 9 mi (14-¼ km) further west.

Bulleted item General Basin Description
Bulleted item Political Boundaries
Bulleted item Travel
Bulleted item Ecoregions
Bulleted item The Rio Chama
Bulleted item Tributaries of the Rio Chama
Bulleted item Identifying Watershed Pollutants
Bulleted item Nonpoint Source Pollutant Water Quality Management
Bulleted item Watershed Restoration Action Strategies
Bulleted item Budgeting Water Pollution:  Total Maximum Daily Loads
Bulleted item Point Source Regulation:  The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System
Bulleted item Public Outreach

Bulleted item Upper Rio Chama Watershed TMDLs - 2011
Bulleted item Water Quality Survey Summary for the Upper Rio Chama Watershed - 2007
Bulleted item 2007 Lakes Water Quality Assessments including Abiquiu and El Vado Reservoirs - 2007
Bulleted item Rio Chama Watershed Restoration Action Strategy
- 2005
Bulleted item Lower Rio Chama Watershed TMDLs - 2004
Bulleted item Upper Rio Chama Watershed TMDLs - 2003
Bulleted item Rio Chamita TMDLs for ammonia, fecal coliform and total phosphorus - 1999
Bulleted item Rio Chamita TMDL for temperature - 1999
Bulleted item Water Quality Survey Summary for the Lower Rio Chama Watershed - 1999

Bulleted item Village of Chama WWTP
  Bulleted item 2011 Inspection
Bulleted item Los Ojos State Fish Hatchery
  Bulleted item 2011 Inspection

The central lowlands of the Rio Chama Watershed are largely dominated by the southern Rockies foothill woodlands and shrublands ecoregion.  The eastern highlands are made up of mid-elevation forests on sedimentary bedrock that give way to subalpine forests also on sedimentary bedrock at higher elevations in the south and subalpine forests on volcanic lithology in the north.  Just to the west of the Rio Chama, more interspersed areas of mid-elevation forests on sedimentary bedrock again dominate.

The Rio Chama
The watershed’s principle drainage, the Rio Chama, is approximately 120 mi (193 km) in length. It begins its journey from its headwaters in Colorado and ends in Española, where it joins the Rio Grande.  The route is fairly north-to-south, but with a large arc westward, as it becomes the source water of the first two of three reservoirs, Heron and neighboring El Vado.  Turning south again, it begins its final southeastern journey from the confluence of the Rio Gallina, in the heart of Chama Canyon.  The third reservoir, Abiquiu, is located in the middle of this southeastern run, in the south-central part of the watershed.  Surface waters throughout the region are used primarily for domestic and irrigation uses.  Other beneficial aquatic uses include a wide variety of popular recreational activities including power-boating, fishing, swimming, and sailing.

Tributaries of the Rio Chama
The Rio Chama is fed by several tributaries, including (beginning in the north) Wolf Creek, the Rio Chamita, Little Willow Creek, Cañones Creek (northern), the Rio Brazos and its most significant tributary, Chavez Creek, and the Rito de Tierra Amarilla.  Below El Vado reservoir, the Rio Nutrias, and the Rio Cebolla drain westward, whereas the Rio Gallina and its multiple tributaries of Clear Creek, Rio Capulin, and Cecilia Canyon Creek, drain the southwestern corner of the watershed.  Rito Rusumidero, Rito Redondo and Poleo Creek all feed the north-flowing Rio Puerco de Chama before it joins the Rio Chama at the far southwestern end of Abiquiu Reservoir.  Canjilon Creek drains the north-central basin, ending at the far northern bend of Abuiquiu Reservoir.  North-flowing (southern) Cañones Creek feeds Abiquiu Reservoir directly above Abiquiu Dam.  Cañones Creek is itself fed further upstream by Polvadera Creek and Chihuaueños CreekAbiquiu Creek joins the Rio Chama from the south about 8 miles (13 km) below Abiquiu Dam.  El Rito, from the north, joins up another 8 miles (13 km) south of Abiquiu Creek’s confluence with the Rio Chama.  The last major tributaries to feed the Rio Chama are the Rio del Oso from the south and the Rio Ojo Caliente from the north.   The Rio Vallecitos and Rio Tusas form the Rio Ojo Caliente at La Madera.  The Rio Vallecitos is itself supplied by Jarosa Creek and Placer Creek with its Hopewell Lake.

Identifying Watershed Pollutants
The Surface Water Quality Bureau (SWQB) sampled various sites throughout the Rio Chama Watershed in 1999 and 2007 and has subsequently identified 18 stream segments that do not currently meet state water quality standards (WQS) for different reasons, including: bacteria (E. coli); specific conductance; high levels of aluminum, ammonia, and phosphorous; insufficient dissolved oxygen; stream bottom deposits; elevated water temperatures; and turbidity from soil erosion.

Nonpoint Source Pollutant Water Quality Management
The federal Clean Water Action Plan (CWAP) of 1998 was developed to help meet the goals of the Clean Water Act (CWA) through state-led cooperative efforts. These efforts attempt to identify and prioritize watersheds with water quality concerns. New Mexico’s Unified Watershed Assessment (UWA) was conducted in 1998 by a statewide task force in response to the actions mandated in the CWAP.  The UWA identified 21 out of New Mexico’s 83 watersheds as “in need of restoration” (Category 1). The Rio Chama Watershed was identified in the UWA as a Category I watershed:  a watershed in most urgent need of restoration.

Watershed Restoration Action Strategies
The CWAP asks each state to prepare a Watershed Restoration Action Strategy (WRAS) for the priority watersheds identified in the UWA.  A WRAS is a non-regulatory, voluntary approach to addressing nonpoint source impacts to water quality. The CWA does not regulate nonpoint sources, but relies on states and other entities (such as collaborative watershed groups) to develop best management practices (BMPs) to help reduce pollution loading.  Nonpoint source pollution does not originate from one source, such as through a pipe or from a tank, but rather originates from multiple sources over a relatively large area. Nonpoint sources can be divided into source activities related to either land or water use including, but not limited to, failing septic tanks, construction, road maintenance, recreation, animal-keeping practices, forestry practices, and urban and rural runoff.  A WRAS is based not on legal obligations but on a desire to restore watershed health and water quality through the strength of community cooperation, and open communication among local residents, agencies, and other stakeholders. It is a general blueprint for a comprehensive, watershed-wide restoration program, one project at a time. As such, a WRAS is considered to be a work in progress, to be updated every couple of years to reflect changing conditions and new information.

The Rio Chama WRAS was prepared for in 2005.  This voluntary effort was prepared by the Rio Chama Watershed Groups as coordinated by SWQB’s Watershed Protection Section (WPS) under a CWA section (§) 319 grant by the Meridian Institute of Dillon, Colorado.  The WPS continues to work with watershed groups to develop watershed-based plans (WBPs) to implement strategies that attempt to correct water quality impairments throughout the region.  Implementation of items detailed in WBPs are done with participation of all interested and affected parties.

Budgeting Watershed Pollution:  Total Maximum Daily Loads
The CWA requires that all states identify surface waters within their respective boundaries that do not meet, or are not expected to meet established federal water quality standards. Additionally, §303(d) of the Act requires states to prioritize their listed waters for the development of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs).  A TMDL is a budget for the amount of a pollutant that can enter a watercourse without causing it to exceed surface water quality standards. The state of New Mexico has 14 years of experience developing TMDLs, first starting back in 1997.  SWQB actively develops TMDLs and load allocations for rivers, creeks and streams within the state as part of its Water Quality Management Plan (WQMP).

TMDLs based on three stream surveys conducted in 1999 were completed for certain reaches of the upper part of the Chama watershed in 1999 (see two Chamita TMDL entries above).  Subsequent TMDL updates for the upper watershed were completed in September 2003 and for other stream segments based on the 1999 study in the lower portion of the watershed in June 2004. Initial TMDL development included 11 of the 18 stream segments identified as impaired; the seven remaining stream segments with exceedences are currently being addressed by the TMDL development process. Consequently, there are now 21 separate TMDLs for 11 stream segments in the Rio Chama watershed.  Another 16 TMDLs have been proposed before the Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC), which they approved at their July 12, 2011 public meeting to cover the remaining 7 stream segments.  Final US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) review for those TMDLs is expected by 2012.

SWQB’s Monitoring and Assessment Section (MAS) will collect water quality data during the next 8-year rotational cycle.  The next scheduled monitoring date for the Rio Chama Watershed is 2012 at which time TMDL targets will be re-examined and potentially revised. TMDL development is considered to be an evolving management planning process.  In the event that new data indicate that the targets used were not appropriate and/or if new standards are adopted, pollutant load capacities will be adjusted accordingly. When water quality standards have been achieved, impacted reaches will be moved to the appropriate category in the State's CWA §303(d)/§305(b) Integrated Report.  Although lakes and reservoirs are not currently being targeted for TMDL development, surveys of the three large reservoirs as well as one lake, Canjilon, were made in 2007.

Point Source Regulation:  The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System
The Rio Chama Watershed included two federally regulated surface water discharges, the Village of Chama's Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) and NMDGF's Los Ojos State Fish Hatchery. SWQB's Point Source Regulation Section (PSRS) routinely inspects and provides oversight duties as required by the federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting process. Chama's WWTP permit officially expired in September 2010 and is currently being updated by US EPA.  An NPDES compliance inspection for the WWTP was recently conducted in 2011 and is now available online. Los Ojos State Fish Hatchery's permit is set to expire in August 2011.  An inspection report for the fish hatchery was also conducted in 2011.

Public Outreach

Public meetings are routinely offered during TMDL development, wetland initiatives, and watershed-based planning efforts to help summarize all the information known and to provide a forum for interested parties to ask questions and provide comments. Meeting dates and times are carefully coordinated to allow the public time to review interim SWQB work and offer an opportunity to generate questions and provide comments. During these meetings, SWQB has listened to watershed residents’ concerns about many wide-ranging subjects, including channelization and erosion, the impact of the drought on stream temperatures, peak runoff occurring earlier in the season and limiting the ability to irrigate, unauthorized impoundments of water, impacts of upland development on the river, unauthorized travel (particularly on public land) by ATVs, the existence of old logging roads contributing to erosion, poorly regulated and improperly installed private septic tanks, community sewage treatment facilities, the presence of many varieties of noxious plants, encroachment by woody species such as sage, piñon, and juniper, dense tree growth and its potential impact on water yield, and the risk to communities and potential effects on water quality from catastrophic wildfires due to the unaddressed build-up of hazardous fuels in the watershed. Whenever comments range outside of the purview of SWQB, the bureau retains the discretion of informing other state or federal agencies concerning the subject matter. SWQB is a proud participant in watershed forums, environmental conferences, interagency initiatives, and other venues which address ecology issues in New Mexico.


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