The Santa Fe Watershed Association

Gayle Gertler lives in the Rosaria arroyo neighborhood and cleans the arroyo once a week. Photo by Sasha Hill

In the Santa Fe River, volunteers for the Santa Fe Watershed Association have found wooden sculptures, hand blown glass pipes, scorched spoons, a jade Chinese chop decorated with a tiger, an unloaded pistol and the legal papers of a homeless man who, upon checking Facebook, has family and friends desperately searching for him. The volunteers, organized into groups known as stewards, scour assigned stretches of the river for trash and evidence of erosion. In some areas, they dodge the occasional hypodermic needle.

The Santa Fe Watershed Association has spent the last 20 years dedicated to the care of the rivers and arroyos in the county. “We want to bring awareness and education to people about the state of the river,” Keely Jackson Kennemore says. Kennemore is the acting coordinator of the stewards and the “on-boarding” agent for volunteers. “People need to understand that the watershed is an important part of our environment and we need to keep it healthy.”

Keely Kennemore is the volunteer coordinator for the Santa Fe Watershed Association. Photo by Jason Stilgebouer

The Adopt-a-River program has been in effect for 15 years. Through this program, the river is divided into 30 different reaches. Each reach is assigned a steward for long-term care. Not only do the steward teams clean trash out of the river and from the surrounding areas, but they monitor and report to the Watershed Association any bank erosion or any changes to the physical body of the water. Volunteers can join existing stewards, start their own or act as angel volunteers—also known as a float team—to take over during seasons when school-based stewards are unable to participate in the community clean-ups. “You can be out there, helping the community and in a new environment,” Kennemore says.

No experience is needed to get involved in the Adopt-a-River program. The Watershed Association provides basic cleaning and safety training. While at times biological waste, glass and used needles appear during cleanups, the teams are trained to navigate such objects, whether it’s reporting them to the city, choosing to leave them alone or making the decision to safely dispose of the items.

Keith Clark (right), Gayle Gertler, Russ Garland, Daniel Gibson, Keely Kennemore, and Lynn Clark have adopted the Rosario Arroyo with in the St. Catherine neighborhood. Photo by Sasha Hill

Volunteer teams also train to navigate around the homeless that make the waterside their place of rest. “We find a lot of people living in the river,” Kennemore says. “They don’t have a proper bathroom, so that usually ends up being the river.” While some cities have such drastic homeless encampments that the water has becomes contaminated, Santa Fe’s own homeless population makes its mark on the river. “We try to clean things up that we can tell they’ve abandoned, but if there is a place that is being lived in, we leave it to be respectful.” The confluence of the volunteers and the homeless individuals living on the river is a meeting of two different, and yet clearly intertwined issues of river care and people care. “You can learn a lot about your society by volunteering with us,” Kennemore says. “And more about people, like [the homeless].”

Daniel Gibson (center) is a volunteer who also lives in the St. Catherine neighborhood. Photo by Sasha Hill

Volunteer positions are available for more than just the Adopt-a-River program. Chris Jay Lucero, a student from Santa Fe Community College, interns at the Watershed Association as a graphic designer for its website. “It’s good to know that we have people taking care of the rivers,” Lucero says. “I’ve lived here for 30 years and I never noticed the signs they have up around the city until [the Watershed Association] pointed them out to me.” For Lucero, the internship was an eye-opening way to both give back to the community and gain field experience. Other volunteer opportunities include vegetation management, tree identification, erosion control, outreach, fundraisers, event assistance, web design, photography and even the chance to contribute written pieces regarding the rivers and the work of the organization.

Despite the stewards’ continued efforts, the river and arroyos are still in need of management. While most of the river is beautiful, the more trash-ridden underpasses benefit from the attention the community volunteers provide. One steward group, Women Who Walk on Water, reports the finding of a purse with a checkbook inside. Upon calling the number on one of the checks, they discovered that the purse had belonged to Cheng, a Cambodian refugee who lost her family to the Khmer killings. Cheng recalled having $2,500 in her purse when it was stolen out of her car. As a thank you, the shop owner of Bittersweet, where Cheng works, offered a pink crystal rope necklace to the steward who had recovered the purse. The Women Who Walk on Water take turns possessing the precious gift.

Visit the website to learn more about how to volunteer for the Santa Fe Watershed Association.