In October, individuals from Coca-Cola North America joined the U.S. Forest Service, New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED), Quivira Coalition, Trout Unlimited, and others in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to see the results of a successful wetland restoration project in the Comanche Creek watershed, look at areas that still need to be restored, and discuss the trajectory of the area’s wetlands.

Coca-Cola is the first corporation to join the partnership, contributing $280,000 to the National Forest Foundation to fund various wetland restoration projects in the Valle Vidal, a 100,000-acre mountain basin in the Carson National Forest.

The company sees the project as a prime opportunity to continue its commitment to restoring 100% of the water it uses to make its beverages to communities and natural environments, a goal Coca-Cola announced it had achieved in August.

“What we do is try to focus on areas that are in need,” says Jon Radtke, a hydrogeologist at Coca-Cola who leads the company’s water replenishment program. “Plus, it helps support communities downstream.”

Jon Radtke, water sustainability program director, Coca-Cola North America speaks with US Forest Service on progress made in Comanche Creek Watershed

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

The Comanche Creek, a tributary of the Rio Costilla with headwaters lying at 10,000 feet above sea level, has eroded over centuries as grazing patterns, logging practices, and the effects of mining have caused deep cuts in the stream and dried out the wetlands around it. Because of the Comanche’s high elevation, the drained watershed deprives lower-altitude rivers like the Rio Costilla and Rio Grande of the nutrients and healthy streamflow that they need. It also impacts the small communities and species that rely on those systems (particularly the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, which have come dangerously close to an Endangered Species Act listing).

But because of this variety of consequences, the Comanche Creek watershed has now become a prime location for restoration for government agencies, environmental organizations, and now corporations because of its ecological influence, wide range of uses by the public, and the variety of benefits that a restored watershed can give to those groups.

It’s also a stunning landscape; the elevation of the Valle Vidal ranges from 7,400 feet to 12,554 feet and has been nicknamed the “Yellowstone of the Southwest.”

“Costilla (a small community downstream from the Rio Costilla) and others can thrive in the long run,” says Cal Joyner, the Forest Service’s Regional Forester in the Southwestern Region. “Then you’ll be able to access for hunting, for fishing, for livestock, for agriculture down in the valley below…That’s why this is important as public land: multiple purposes, multiple uses.”

The Comanche Creek Working Group (CCWG), which was started in 2001 by Quivira Coalition (an organization working to create environmental resilience in western landscapes) in collaboration with the NMED and the Forest Service, set out to restore areas of the Comanche Creek watershed that were in critical condition.

Trout Unlimited, an organization that works to protect coldwater fisheries, and restoration design contracting service Watershed Artisans joined the working group in the early going, and The CCWG has since drawn more interested parties into the partnership over the years. The National Forest Foundation and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish have joined the collaboration as well.

Coca-Cola joined the project in 2015 after Radtke and Bruce Karas, CCNSA’s Vice President of Environment and Sustainability, visited the Valle Vidal and saw major restoration potential in some of the larger wetlands in the watershed that had begun to dry out. When Radtke, Karas, and about a dozen agencies and organizations attended a Forest Service-led field trip to the valley in October, one of the largest wetland Coca-Cola had invested in had visibly transformed. A high water table creating a marsh in one side of the valley and dampened the soil in distant parts of the valley.

In 2015, the partnership between Coca-Cola, the Forest Service, Trout Unlimited, and Watershed Artisans yielded the restoration of 151 acres of wetland, almost twice the area of wetland in the Carson that was restored in 2014. According to Toner Mitchell from Trout Unlimited, a largely volunteer-based organization that has been instrumental is doing the work that Coca-Cola funds, says Coca-Cola’s contribution has amounted to the restoration of about two hundred million liters of water to the Comanche Creek watershed.

“The diversity of the group is, in large part, why it has been so successful over the last decade and a half,” says Michael Gatlin, a fisheries biologist for the Forest Service. “These projects in the Comanche Creek watershed are ripe. We’re doing work every year up here, and it would be great to have more partners come in.”

Coca-Cola hopes to use its influence to draw other corporations to similar environmental projects, providing more funding for the Forest Service and allowing it to complete its prioritized projects and quickly move on to the next need.

“There is so much more we can do with the addition of more corporate partners,” Karas says. “The fact that we were all on this trip together isn’t a little thing; it shows that we all want to be in this together.”