A desert oasis

The Rio Ojo Caliente

Water is life

The Rio Ojo Caliente begins at the confluence of Vallecitos and Tusas creeks. This short (20 mile long) river is a truly wild river that drains about 420 square miles, and joins the Rio Chama near Chamita, New Mexico. Farming was introduced to the Ojo valley by Spanish settlers in the 17th century, although earlier indigenous people also farmed the valley on a much smaller scale. The river was much different prior to European settlement and supported an amazingly diverse variety of wildlife from moose to beavers. Today, like many western rivers, the Rio Ojo is undergoing entrenchment which over time begins to strand its flood plain. Consequently it takes extraordinary floods to replenish its riparian zone.

Rio Ojo Caliente

Once beavers were largely removed from the river system there was no natural check to sudden flooding from intense rainfall or springtime runoff. Because of this, the riverbed is constantly scoured and slowly deepened in relation to its banks. Imagine a meandering river slowly winding its way through the surrounding floodplain. High water flows spread out into this plain replenishing soil and giving a needed soaking to various plants and trees. Beavers’ role in this system was crucial, they are the one animal other than man that can change its environment, and in this case to the betterment of a living river system.

When we arrived on The Ojo, dense russian olive, an imported brushy, thorny and highly successful tree, made it nearly impossible to access the river. Presumably, this opportunistic tree arrived in the area in the mid to early 20th century. Unlike the resident cottonwoods which hold water, russian olive transpires much of its moisture into the air. This tends to accelerate the already drying Bosque in which it has found a home.

Still, the Ojo Caliente today, provides much needed water and habitat for a variety of animals. Moose no longer range here, but elk are frequent valley visitors and the narrow riparian zone attracts many smaller animals from deer to coyotes to raccoons and wild cats. The list is pretty big. Encroaching development throughout the valley is a big impediment to wildlife big and small. Throw in a changing climate and one can begin to imagine a challenging future for this area.

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