Farmington will wrap up third year of river parks mitigation, restoration plan

Focus this year is on planting of native trees, shrubs and grasses

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
This site west of the Riverside Nature Center in Farmington's Animas Park is part of a thinning and restoration project in the river parks that was started in March 2020.
  • The Animas Mitigation and Restoration Project was initiated in March 2020 with a grant from the New Mexico Water Trust Board.
  • The goal of the project was to thin areas of the river parks that were overgrown with invasive species.
  • This year, city workers will concentrate on new plantings after their efforts in that regard over the last two years came up short.

FARMINGTON — City officials in Farmington are preparing to get started on the third year of a three-year plan to thin invasive tree and plant species from the Animas River corridor and replace them with native plantings.

The Animas Mitigation and Restoration Project, which was initiated in March 2020 with a grant from the New Mexico Water Trust Board, began with a 10-acre site near the Riverside Nature Center in Animas Park.

The project grew to include a 36-acre site west of the nature center, north of the river near Cottonwood Landing and near All Veterans Memorial Plaza.

The goal of the project was to thin areas of the river parks that were overgrown with invasive species such as Russian olive and salt cedar trees, lessening the chances of a catastrophic wildfire. City officials planned to replace the trees that were removed with such native species as cottonwood and willows, along with native shrubs and grasses.

More:River parks take on new look as non-native plant mitigation project hits high gear

A slash pile from a thinning project is pictured in Farmington's Berg Park in March 2021. City officials estimate 5,200 Russian olive and salt cedar trees have been removed from the river parks as invasive species over the last two years.

Much of the first two years of the project was devoted to removal of the invasive species. City officials estimated that a 13-acre site near the nature center was thinned by 400 trees an acre, leading to the removal of approximately 5,200 trees. The removal of Russian olive trees was a priority of the project, as a single tree from that species can consume 80 to 120 gallons of water per day, according to a fact sheet produced by the city last year.

City officials have claimed the water savings for the terrain that was treated totals more than 1.4 million gallons a day, according to The Daily Times archives. They say one day's savings would provide enough water for a herd of 100 deer for 49 years.

This year, city workers will concentrate on new plantings after their efforts in that regard over the last two years came up short. City spokesperson Georgette Allen said the original plan called for the planting of 200 1-inch cottonwood pole plantings, along with members of the forb family such as small burnet, western yarrow, Palmer's penstemon, common sunflower, sainfoin, Louisiana sage, Lewis flax and blanket flower to help feed the parks' large deer population. The remainder of the area was then to be seeded with native grasses, she said.

But few of those plantings were successful. Allen said only an estimated 10% of the pole plantings have survived, along with a very low percentage of the other plantings, because of a lack of rainfall and a lower water table as San Juan County continues to endure a long-running drought.

This year, city officials have a new plan. Additional plantings will take place this year beginning on Earth Day, April 22, or Arbor Day, April, 29, she said, thanks to a donation from the River Reach Foundation, the nonprofit organization that organizes the Riverfest and Riverglo celebrations each year.

Much of the work done on a fire mitigation and restoration project in Farmington's Animas and Berg parks over the last two years has centered on land adjacent to the Riverside Nature Center, lessening the chances of a catastrophic wildfire in the area.

D'Ann Waters, the president of the River Reach Foundation, said city officials are getting quotes on the cost of new trees, so she didn't know how many would be planted this year, but Allen estimated that number at 20 to 25, along with some native shrubs.

Those new plantings will be supported by the construction of a temporary irrigation system, Allen said. The trees will be weaned off the supplemental water in three to five years, she said.

Waters said the community will be invited to get involved in the project by donating money for the planting of specific trees in honor of a designated family member, friend or acquaintance.

Allen said the restoration of the fire mitigation area will continue past this year until the city's goals are met. City officials envision the area becoming a grassy meadow with a diverse population of trees that includes cottonwoods, hackberrys, New Mexico olives and several species of oaks, along with a variety of native shrubs.

City officials enjoyed better luck with the removal of the invasive species. Allen said the herbicide that workers used to treat the Russian olive and salt cedar stumps was 85% successful at preventing new shoots from sprouting. The cut-down trees that have sprouted are being treated with additional herbicide, she said, to discourage their growth.

Doug Abe, parks superintendent for the City of Farmington, said last year the benefits of the project were numerous, adding that the trails system around the nature center and Animas Park likely would be redesigned as a result of the thinning process. Allen noted that a rough new trail already has been designated from the Willet Ditch to the nature center, but city officials are waiting to see where park visitors walk on their own before making any new trails permanent.

Additional efforts to thin areas of the river parks overgrown with invasive species likely will be undertaken in the future, she said, explaining that work would be focused on areas that present the highest fire danger. She said the Farmington Fire Department continues to work with the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District to apply for fire mitigation grants from New Mexico State Forestry.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.