Low-water Crossing Floods Nearby Residents

By David Collins

Aug. 7, 2008, The Santa Fe New Mexican

 

The Rio Tesuque flooded County Road 84 west of the river Monday when an earthen dam the county built in July to direct the river under a new low water crossing prevented rising water from flowing in the river bed.

 

Neighbors west of the crossing fought the rising water with shovels and rescued livestock from the floodplain after the river jumped from its usual path. One young chicken died, and some vehicles were half submerged in a driveway downstream of the county road.

 

"What a mess," Sharon Trujillo said as she stepped through her muddy driveway Tuesday morning.

 

The river flowed along County Road 84 around 5:30 p.m., and spilled into the Trujillos' driveway a few hundred yards west of the river. Flood water rose within a few inches below the Trujillos' patio door.

 

Between the Trujillos' small ranch and the river, rising water inundated the yards and gardens around a riverside settlement a Pueblo of Pojoaque member built in 2002 after signing a waiver that released the pueblo of liability. The bottom of wooden fence in front of the mobile-home settlement was pushed downstream by the force of the waters, which left stains 18 inches up the fence, a few hundred feet from the river's usual path.

 

New gullies and a thick coat of mud marked the course of the flood through that family's driveway, where the water was waist- high on adults who raced to rescue livestock after sundown. Water began to recede from the west side of the river after the earth berm that county crews built to steer water under the concrete low-water crossing gave way and allowed the river back into its usual path.

 

County Growth Management director James Lujan said earlier that the crossing was constructed so that water would flow east of the new cement crossing when it exceeds the 86-cubic-foot capacity of low-water culverts in the new crossing structure.

 

Santa Fe County spokesperson Stephen Ulibarri said the county will remove all of the earth berms it has built in the river to provide a short-term solution to flooding.

 

Santa Fe County contracted for construction of the new low-water crossing, which was built in May. In June, crews raised the roadway west of the river to about the level of the top of the low- water crossing.

 

After raising and paving the roadway to the west, crews using front-end loaders piled dirt upstream along the still-unimproved section of the roadway east of the structure. The trickle of water running in the river during the days preceding Monday's flood flowed along the berm, across the width of the river from the east bank upstream of the crossing to the west bank, where it flowed through box culverts.

 

"We've tried to get something built here for years," said Trujillo, who has lived close to the river with her husband Danny Trujillo for more 26 years.

 

Many area residents immediately criticized the county structure when crews began dumping dirt fill in the river to raise the roadway. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a 2006 letter declined to exercise regulatory oversight prior to construction of the low water crossing. However, none of the construction drawings Santa Fe County officials provided The New Mexican in response to a public records request anticipated construction of a berm across the entire width of the river.

 

A flood analysis prepared for the county said the crossing would not increase flood levels, and might even reduce flood levels in the area of the crossing. Documents The New Mexican inspected showed the study relied on published terrain-elevation data and did not seek new surveys of the area.

 

Corps of Engineers officials have previously said the Army is responsible for regulating dredging and filling in all navigable waterways in the United States. Santa Fe County crews for years have used heavy equipment in the riverbed to repair the long unimproved crossing after high water events. While building the earthen dam last month aftera previous high-water event, a county road grader became stuck in the muddy riverbed and was pulled out by two county front-end loaders.

 

Corps officials said Tuesday they are reviewing their files to see if Santa Fe County has a permit to maintain the crossing and it the berm was approved in the permit.

 

One senior county official involved in planning the project who asked not to be named said the county built a low-water crossing one- third of the way across the river because it did not have enough money to build an engineered structure all the way across the river.

 

A resident who has lived near the river for decades, and who also asked not to be named, said the river frequently rises to the level it did Monday. The Rio Tesuque drains about 78.2-square miles, much of which is steep, high-altitude terrain that quickly sheds heavy rainfall into the river.