On a cool morning in the middle of October, a caravan of U.S. Forest Service vehicles wove through the mountains of northern New Mexico. They stayed close enough to each other to maintain a radio signal as they pressed further into the Valle Vidal, a 100,000-acre mountain basin in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains just a few miles south of the New Mexico-Colorado border.

Spread among the vehicles was a strangely varied group. I sat in the middle back seat of a white Jeep that hugged the Rio Costilla, a Rio Grande tributary that lies downstream from the Comanche Creek, the stream toward which we were headed. In the driver’s seat sat USDA Forest Service’s James Duran, who last year was appointed Forest Supervisor for the Carson National Forest, the 1.5 million-acre landscape in which the Valle Vidal lies. Mike Bernier from Swire Coca-Cola, a Coca-Cola bottler that covers the company’s manufacturing and distribution in most of the west, sat in the passenger seat. On either side of me sat Jacob Davidson and Stewart Liley of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

As we neared the site of the Vidal Creek—a tributary to the Comanche Creek—where we would make our first stop, Liley got out of the car to walk the last couple of miles. He spent four years in these mountains studying elk populations, but most of his work with the Department of Game and Fish happens in the office these days. A public-private collaboration to restore wetlands in the Valle Vidal provides a nice opportunity to go back out and remind himself why he does this work. And when you know the land like the back of your hand, there’s no need to take the tour from the back of a car.

Two hours after departing from Taos, the caravan arrived in an enormous meadow, the Vidal Creek running through it. It’s a landscape that Forest Service Regional Forester Cal Joyner likens to Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, pine-covered mountains and a collage of changing leaves bordering the meadow on either side. Joyner also called the Comanche Creek wetland a “big sponge,” the potential water storage of which has huge effects on the state of creeks and rivers downstream. Right now, though, the sponge is pretty dry.

The 'Big Sponge'

The headwaters of the Comanche Creek lie over 10,000 feet above sea level, which makes the tributary’s ecological state highly important to the health of the Rio Grande River system. These wetlands in the Sangre de Cristo mountains are slope wetlands, where widespread water loss begins on the high ground before affecting lower-altitude systems. The steady erosion that has occurred in Comanche Creek for centuries from various factors like grazing patterns, logging, and mining (before the Forest Service acquired the land in 1982) has created deeper stream channels, lowering the water table and consequently drying out the Comanche’s banks and its surrounding wetlands. The deeper the stream becomes, the faster erosion occurs, cutting off the circulation of large segments of the Comanche. When the creek’s watershed is healthy, the Rio Costilla and Rio Grande receive the benefits. When it’s not, those systems and the organisms and communities that rely on them suffer.

“A lot of our communities are unincorporated, so they don’t have a government… a mayor …a facilities department with water systems,” Duran says. “Many of these homeowners drill their own well, basically living off the grid. We are their water source.”

Communities around the Carson don’t just depend on healthy wetlands for water; the Carson is a vast public land that serves many different purposes for its users. The day we were in the Valle Vidal happened to be the last day of an elk hunt that was happening on the same land. People enjoy a variety of recreational activities on this land as well, and the beef that’s consumed in nearby towns by local citizens and tourists alike comes from the cattle that graze in these meadows. Fishermen want healthy Rio Grande cutthroat trout, a species that in 2008 was named a candidate for potential listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Valle Vidal

“I really feel like right now, the timing is right in the Carson,” Duran said. “Groups that didn’t talk two years ago…are now talking and are really committed to that shared stewardship… At the end of the day, that’s what water does for us. It makes us realize that everybody needs it… As long as we’re doing things for water, we all benefit.”

Fifteen years ago, the Forest Service was doing most of this kind of work alone, an insurmountable task considering the lack of conservation efforts in these lands for most of the 1900s. Duran says that for a long time there was a popular mentality among ranchers that if there was a blade of grass left, you didn’t graze hard enough. Penzoil acquired the land in 1973 and donated it to the Forest Service nine years later. The valley has been well-protected since then, but the Forest Service’s solo attempts at environmental restoration can be painstakingly slow and having sufficient funding as a single agency for all the projects that the landscape needs is often an unreality.

But the widespread benefits that a restored Comanche Creek can give to the Carson and its surrounding communities has made the Valle Vidal a worthy investment for many outside parties. Government agencies, corporations, and environmental organizations are finding common interests, making the Valle Vidal the center stage of a major partnership in environmental work in the west.

Toner Mitchell, Trout Unlimited’s New Mexico Water and Habitat Program Manager, put it simply: “Seeing all these people today is amazing.”

Coca-Cola on the Comanche

In 2001, Quivira Coalition (an organization working to create environmental resilience in western landscapes) began working to restore the Comanche Creek wetlands because of the potential for water storage and influence on systems downstream. Quivira Coalition organized the Comanche Creek Working Group, whose core participants over the years have been the New Mexico Environment Department, the Questa Ranger District of the Carson National Forest, Trout Unlimited (a group working to preserve coldwater fisheries), and Watershed Artisans.

The group has continued to draw other parties into the collaboration, including New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the National Forest Foundation.

In 2015, The Coca-Cola Company jumped in on the collaboration. It was the first major corporation to do so. For the last few years, the company has been vocal about its commitment to achieve “water balance” by restoring the same amount of water to communities and natural environments as the company uses to make its beverages. In 2015, Coca-Cola hit the mark, replenishing to communities and nature around 191 billion liters of water globally. About half of that total came from the company’s investments in wetland restoration projects, and the company has started investing in wetlands in the Valle Vidal.

Jon Radtke, water sustainability program director, Coca-Cola North America 

“It helps support communities downstream… and that’s where our consumers are, and our customers,” said John Radtke, a hydrogeologist who leads Coca-Cola’s water replenishment program. “It may seem like this is just one tiny little step in downstream flows, but you have to start somewhere.”

That start came when Radtke and colleague Bruce Karas were a few miles downstream from the “big sponge,” at the site of another large wetland that had begun to degrade due to several incisions, or “headcuts,” in the channel that typically start the erosion process. Radtke leads Coca-Cola North America’s water replenishment program, so his goal was to look for restoration projects to fund that have the most potential for high-volume changes. Radtke says this one was by far the biggest wetland he saw in the area, and it was in danger of being drained.

“We were looking for projects in the Rio Grande watershed,” Radtke said. “When we first came out and looked…it was like, ‘Wow, something needs to be done here.’”

'It helps support communities downstream… and that’s where our consumers are, and our customers. It may seem like this is just one tiny little step in downstream flows, but you have to start somewhere.'  

By 2016, the wetland was visibly healthier. A series of wood log structures, hundreds of which have been placed strategically on incision points in tributaries throughout the Valle Vidal watershed over the last couple of years, had raised the water table, filling the plain with moisture and nutrients. The relatively small structures have renewed the wetland—and several others in the area that Coca-Cola’s funding helped restore—to a degree that isn’t clear at first sight. The fenced-in series of structures in this particular meadow is a few hundred feet long and less than 100 feet wide, but it has helped to thoroughly saturate the majority of a valley that measures hundreds of yards in width.

“I dare you to walk across there,” Radtke said, looking out over what appears to be a dry meadow.

The limits that the CCWG has when it comes to monitoring changes and collecting data in wetlands of the Valle Vidal have made it difficult for the group to measure exact progress of wetland restoration in terms of the amount of water being saved and its effects downstream. Michael Gatlin, a fisheries biologist at the Forest Service, says that Quivira Coalition and the Forest Service are trying to develop a more “scientifically rigorous monitoring plan.” According to individuals from the New Mexico Environment Department who have been measuring temperatures in these wetlands since 1999, temperatures in restored wetlands have been dropping at a consistent rate. That’s a vital change for the livelihood of trout and a sign of the healthy presence of groundwater.

Mitchell says the restoration work in the Valle Vidal that Coca-Cola funded over the last two years has amounted to about two hundred million liters of water.

“This is conservation-wise use as you gather together and figure out how to do this best,” Joyner said. “It’s more complicated, it’s more difficult. But it’s also that much more satisfying when we pull it off.”

'At the end of the day, that’s what water does for us. It makes us realize that everybody needs it… As long as we’re doing things for water, we all benefit.'

Putting the Pieces Together

The days we visited the Valle Vidal, Gatlin said that the series of site visits was “the largest, most diverse trip he’s ever been on.” Representatives from more than a dozen government agencies, companies, and environmental organizations attended the day-long trip through the Carson. Coca-Cola contributed $280,000 to restoration projects in the Valle Vidal over the last two years, and $162,800 of that has contributed to the restoration of 151 acres of wetlands, with 132 acres in progress right now. But perhaps more valuable is the potential for a big increase in funding for restorative work in critical wetlands should other corporations follow Coca-Cola’s lead.

“The idea is that if we can help support this from a corporate perspective, other corporations might also want to get involved,” Ratdke said. “We can leverage more federal dollars and then scale this type of work up.”

If sufficient funding continues to roll in and willing partners contribute their expertise, one of the largest forests in New Mexico will continue to thrive. Restoration would also be achieved as a much faster rate. In 2014, 80 acres of wetlands in the Carson were restored with 105 structures. In 2015—the year Coca-Cola began its partnership in the Carson with Trout Unlimited, the National Forest Foundation, and Watershed Artisans—the group restored 151 acres of wetlands. This year, 132 acres are in the restoration process.

The fruits of good planning have also become evident among of members of the CCWG: In the two weeks that Watershed Artisans’ founder Craig Sponholtz spent in the Valle Vidal last year as the Forest Service’s contractor for the project, he and his team built 50 wetland structures. This year, they built 100 in the same amount of time. Questa District Ranger Jack Davis says that before Quivira Coalition developed a much-needed cohesive plan in 2014 for bringing the Valle Vidal’s wetlands back to life, most of the Forest Service’s restorative work in the area had been piecemeal.

According to Duran, most projects were simply unaffordable.

“What we’re really looking at is, where are the opportunities ripe, and where are the partnerships coming together?” Duran said. “I think that’s what Comanche Creek gives us… right now, we’re very comfortable with the realization that we can’t do it alone.”