Category Archives: Build

Adaptive Actions with Tijeras Creek


Tijeras Creek during a dry season. The remediation project is uphill on the left.

Upper Tijeras Creek during a dry season. The project site is up to the left.

When I first visited the Tijeras Creek Remediation Project two years ago, it was to explore large-scale earthworks: a system of basins, swales, berms and spillways.  I discovered that much more is occurring there.  The project returns natural processes to the upper creek’s floodplain and expands watershed awareness and resiliency know-how.

Before: Degraded Environment

Following the expansion of A. Montoya Elementary School, stormwater from the parking lot and rooftops flowed through culverts that dumped onto the stream bank.  But when it rains just two-tenths (.2) inch, over 300,000 gallons flows into the area.  The intensity of the water carved out gullies, carrying pollutants from the parking lots.  As water rushed through the gullies, it carried loads of soil into the creek.  Some people used the area as a dumping ground. Thus:

  • Water pollution
  • Groundwater depletion
  • Invasive plants
  • Loss of bio-diversity
  • Degraded public space.

Ongoing: Resiliency

The opportunity to develop solutions that mimic nature was something that Jim Brooks couldn’t resist.  Jim has offered volunteers a variety of skill-building activities using permaculture principles.  As Jim describes it, “We’re treating the water with respect when it falls into the site.” The teams practice a variety of adaptive actions, revealing soil as a living thing.  It’s a long-term process that includes new basin and spillway installations this year.  


  • Water Harvesting with earthworks
  • Groundwater supports floodplain.
  • Clean stormwater enters creek.
  • Water is stored in living systems.
  • The plant /soil / food web expands.

The earthworks and soil techniques are applicable in many places where development and nature meet, and volunteers are inspired to practice them in their own places.

Work Parties Dig It

Querencia Green is coordinating work parties with volunteers for the spring and summer.  We’ll start on Sunday, March 20 with Albuquerque Involved volunteers and anyone who wants to participate (wear suitable work clothes).  Tools are provided but you can bring your own. The project site at 24 Public School Road is only eight miles from Albuquerque’s eastern boundary.

We’re also sponsoring field trips with high school classes to increase outdoor experiential learning! Teachers can contact Joanne via the Contact page.

More news about the spring events appear on Facebook Tijeras Creek Remediation Project.  

During 2015 and 2016, project support is provided by the PNM Foundation, and field trips with Highland High School are supported by Albuquerque Involved.  Thanks to all who are part of the resilient solutions!

Environmental Education in Place

Many school campuses have portable buildings, eroded soils, and bare landscape areas.  At the School on Wheels High School in the South Valley, our Places We Live team saw an opportunity for a small earthworks project.

During rainstorms, a downspout on a portable building flowed next to the building and the water collected and evaporated in a low area.  A bio-retention basin could protect the building, improve soil, increase infiltration and nurture new plants.

School on Wheels

Terry Dunbar on site before installation

Joanne McEntire of Querencia Green joined Science Teacher Terry Dunbar at School on Wheels and the Environmental Education Association of New Mexico (EEANM) to install the water harvesting project during the workshop series Places We Live.

The series began with an educators’ workshop to provide the place-based environmental education curriculum from Project Learning Tree.  The South Valley MainStreet board chair, James Aranda, provided a cultural overview of the  neighborhood, which created a greater “sense of place” for the group. Barbara Garrity of EEANM and McEntire explored the Places We Live curriculum.

To focus on issues of water and the important values of trees, McEntire provided activity materials and reviewed key components of rainwater harvesting.  To prepare for the earthworks installation, she designed the basin and arranged for the needed installation materials, and a few science students put in some preliminary time on the site.

Photo: Cass Landrum

Photo: Cass Landrum

A multi-age crew of students from Jimmy Carter Middle School and School on Wheels, plus educators and crew chiefs, made the installation workshop an energetic success!  We built a ‘splash basin’ under the downspout, dug a larger, shallow basin for the runoff, lined the sides with rocks, made “sponges” in the bottom of the basin to catalyze microbial activity, and covered the bottom with woody mulch.

Splash basin under downspout

Splash basin under downspout


The crew planted a Desert Willow tree and Autumn Sage on the edges of the basin, which will expand the native plant diversity at the school.

Teacher Terry Dunbar enjoyed the following day with his participating students: “When our crew members came in this morning, they grabbed their friends and took them out to the site to show off their work.  They’re proud of what they accomplished.”

MS students sage plant C

Planting a Sage on basin edge

Future possibilities for students in the expanded outdoor learning environment include observing microbes in the soil sponges, comparing it to the native soil, supplementary watering in the first dry season, and adaptive actions that repair or improve the site.  The other educators who joined the team hope to create water harvesting projects at their schools or homes.

This team project was made possible by the Albuquerque Community Foundation.  Crew

Earthworks working at Tijeras Creek

Jim describes the design of the basin and berm.

Jim (far left) describes the design of the basin and berm system, with Kurt Capalbo and Dana Allen.

A few days after a sole spring shower, a few explorers walked through the Tijeras Creek Restoration site with Jim Brooks.  Tijeras Creek is a tributary of the middle Rio Grande watershed, flowing westward in the canyon between the Sandia and Manzano mountains, near Interstate 40.  Jim designs and constructs resilient green infrastructure using permaculture principles, and owns Soilutions, the compost company.  He provided project tales and details as he guided us through the work areas.

Culverts and pavement send stormwater into onto the banks of the creek.

Culverts and pavement deliver stormwater onto the banks of the creek. A restored mulched area is visible above the culverts.

Previously, large rainstorms would deliver stormwater draining from 16.5 acres of pavement and buildings into eroding gullies, delivering sediment and pollutants to the creek.  Jim described how volunteer crews have removed multitudes of elm trees and re-sculpted the slopes so that the water slows down in basins, drains into the soil, and flows into the next basin down slope.  Several rock-covered berms between the basins reveal how effective they are in altering the water’s speed and volume – sediment covers the rocks.  Some areas need repair; as Jim says, it’s always a process.

Jim and Dana stand near a soil sponge in the basin.

Jim taps a soil sponge in the basin as Dana checks it out.

Within the basins, Jim is experimenting with a “soil sponge” technique.  His special soil mix is shoveled into small deep pits, where rainwater finds porous spaces to collect in, attracting nearby plant rootlets and offering seedlings a better chance at survival.

Soil sponge

Soil sponge with porous and organic materials

One of my favorite spots was the restored area alongside the roadway, where Jim installed a “net and pan,” a technique that harvests water in small depressions that are connected by a boomerang-shaped network of shallow channels.  The mulch in the photo below covers the earthworks, making it difficult to see, but the earthwork is retaining water, creating an ecological win-win situation for grasses, herbs, worms, fungi and millions of other microscopic critters.  Just add more water with the next monsoon!

Net and pan with mulch on top

Net and pan with mulch on top

There is plenty of work to do: removing unwanted plants, maintaining the existing restored area, and generating more basins and berms and gentle slopes.  Jim is co-hosting an Invasive Species Control Workshop on Saturday, June 28, from 9 am until Noon.  He’ll demonstrate using his favorite weed removal tool, the skidger!  The location is easily found near the middle and elementary schools on Public School Rd, just southwest of the Tijeras exit on I-40.  Albuquerque dwellers are fortunate to live so close to an important restoration site where we can work and learn!  For more information, call Soilutions at 877-0220.

Jim Brooks

Jim Brooks


Event: Turning Water Scarcity Into Water Abundance

This spring, no one can deny that much of New Mexico is in “extreme” and “exceptional”  drought conditions. The landscapes in Albuquerque are dry and several types of trees are not leafing out.

Albuquerque’s annual average precipitation is 9.4 inches, but last year it was 5.5 inches.  It is also hotter, thus more arid. As we acknowledge that every drop counts, many of us have started to practice water harvesting.

As more neighbors capture rainwater to support gardens, trees and wildlife, numerous  benefits can result. We conserve potable water when we use rainwater for outdoor uses, and save energy used to deliver potable water through the distribution system of the water authority. On-site stormwater capture can also reduce the storm flows on our streets, thus reducing some of the nasty pollutants, like e. coli,  that enter the Rio Grande.

Brad Lancaster lives in Tucson, Arizona, and he understands arid places! He is a permaculture teacher, designer, consultant, and the author of the award-winning booksRainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond,” Volumes 1 and 2.

Querencia Green is co-sponsoring a free public presentation with Lancaster on Friday, June 7, at 6 pm, at George Pearl Hall / UNM School of Architecture and Planning. Brad’s presentations are entertaining and informative, and in the heat of June, his message will be welcome!

Querencia Green’s vision is to support neighbor teams in developing green projects, and the story of Brad’s street is illuminating. He started collecting rainwater on his corner property, and gradually, other neighbors harvesting rainwater from their rooftops and the street. The block was transformed – see photo above.  Mesquite trees and other plants provide shade, habitat, a sense of place and beauty. Flour milled from the plentiful mesquite pods is good food for all.

The other co-sponsors for this event are Erda Gardens and Learning Center, Kalyx Studio, and UNM Sustainability Studies Program. Refreshments will be provided by La Montanita Coop and a few sponsors will have information tables after Brad’s talk. Financial support for the event is provided by UNM’s Office for the Vice President of Research.  

Workshop on June 9

Grab a shovel!  Brad Lancaster will also lead a hands-on workshop at Kalyx Studio in the South Valley on Sunday June 9. Participants will learn and practice earthwork techniques to improve the efficiency of acequia irrigation and rainwater capture for the home garden.  Registration and fee information is available from Leslie Buerk at her e-mail: Leslie is a certified permaculture designer.

And the clouds drift by!