Healing a River, Healing a Community

Juarros Family

Juarros Family

By Elizabeth Juarros, PhD

I moved to Las Vegas, New Mexico when I was 13, but I consider this where I’m from. Even though I’m related to many folks in town, people still ask me where I’m from. It’s so lovely here. It’s not trendy and it doesn’t change a lot.

My parents have a history of moving every decade. I was born in New Jersey and we lived in Wisconsin and California. When I was 13 my dad got a job at New Mexico Highland University, which is why we moved to Las Vegas. My parents and siblings aren’t here anymore but I married the boy across the street and we’ve been together for 25 years. He’s my main connection to the people here. His dad was born here and his mom was born nearby in Wagon Mound.

I love being back here after having left to get my BS from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado and my MS and PhD in Physics from the University of Connecticut; and then we also lived in Scotland for some years where my husband did his MFA at Edinburgh College of Art and I held a Teaching Fellowship at the University of Aberdeen. We spent 15 years away from New Mexico when my husband and I decided to move back to Las Vegas, NM with our first son.

There’s something really special about being here. People feel really passionate about the unique history and culture of the town. There are some sad parts about the history which people still feel angry about.

There’s also a respect for the land that is different from anywhere else I’ve been. Many of us here carry a sense that we are connected to the land. Even many of those who live in town have family connections with land nearby. Many people spend time out of town “at the ranch”.

Las Vegas is situated at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range. They are the very last of the Rockies if you follow them down from north to south. We have many acres of National Forest including Carson, Santa Fe, and Pecos. Growing up I’d go backpacking or camping with girlfriends, or we’d go out in the winter with our snowboards and enjoy the snow. I had this feeling that this wild land of the communal forest was my own. A lot of people have those types of strong connections to the land here.

I have two sons that are 10 and 4. They have lots of second and third cousins here. They know that this is their town too. It’s been really important for my children to have extended family around them and I think that’s the way most people here feel. There is a sense here that we are all connected. I’ve observed people meeting for the first time and realizing that they are actually cousins!

My family and I enjoy hiking, camping, and fishing in the national forest lands because they are so spectacular and so peaceful. We make sure to go often to the nearby rivers and lakes to paddle around in our canoe or on our paddle boards. We get to the water as much as we can. We meet others when we are out. Fishing is enjoyed by many folks of all ages.

Whenever it rains here people are so happy. There’s deep and real gratitude for water. Of course, it’s arid here in the high desert. What we call a river is just a teeny little bit of water that we all live on and that we all have to share. Most everyone has this sense that it’s important to respect the water because after all: La agua es Vida!

The river restoration work of the Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance (HPWA) has brought attention to some of the rich, emotional history of Las Vegas. I’ve been working with this nonprofit organization, which works to protect and restore the ecological heritage of watersheds in the Hermit’s Peak region.

HPWA has been doing river restoration work in watersheds around Las Vegas to help increase the quantity of water in the aquifer and create the opportunity for more plants to grow in the riparian area, near the edge of the river. A river that meanders along its natural path allows important native plants to grow that help to clean the water as they absorb toxins. River restoration work prevents flooding and erosion and also makes the water cleaner and more plentiful.

The Gallinas River goes right through town and has been historically channelized by railroad activity and farming practices, resulting in lost floodplain and riparian area. The Gallinas River in town has been degraded. HPWA has been working on getting it back to its original path. This first river restoration project in the City of Las Vegas is called Rewinding the Gallinas and will be finished by the end of 2019.

We got an award from the National Endowment for the Art’s Citizens Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) in order to create a community-driven design for the Gallinas River Park that extends right through the middle of Las Vegas. A revitalized river park could add even more to our community’s overall vitality, culture, tradition, sense of pride, recreation economy and environment. Keeping this in mind, we gathered for a 2 ½ day workshop last October and worked to transform the Gallinas River Park into the centerpiece of our town, a place for all to be proud of and enjoy.

People were able to tell the story of the history of the town and bring their hopes and dreams into the discussion of what the river park should look, sound and feel like. People said that they want to make this area a place where the town can feel united, a place where we can meet in the middle and tell the stories of how we got here.

An important theme that the community held throughout the workshop was the desire for a healthy restored river at the center and core of the park. People said they want to have places for the wildlife, pools for the trout, and space for community orchards and gardens. Local high school students contributed to the conversation with playful ideas as well as important fundamental stewardship concerns. The resource team that CIRD provided for us were full of rich experience and ideas. They were excellent listeners, transcribing our plethora of concerns and dreams into a visual design. The Community Design Workshop was an amazing, uplifting experience.

Since the workshop, this project to revitalize the Gallinas River Park is in the spotlight and seems to carry significant respect and reverence in town. This project has been one where many varied groups seem to be able to find ways to coordinate and collaborate and work together for the ultimate communal vision. The Gallinas River Park Collaborative is an organization with representatives from government entities, educational institutions, community organizations and interested individuals. We meet on the third Friday of every month at 2 PM in Hewett Hall on the campus of New Mexico Highlands University. All are welcome to join us and participate in the process of making the Gallinas River Park the centerpiece of our town!

The community-based process that this project has embraced sets the foundation for a meaningful and long-lasting result, one that has the opportunity to be understood and cherished by our entire community, as well as by future generations.

Want to get involved? Visit: http://hermitspeakwatersheds.org.