Planting the Water for Green Learning Spaces

Do you have a favorite school, one that you attended, or where your children learn?  Do the outdoor areas provide a natural experience?  It seems that many school campuses around Albuquerque have unused spaces that could offer students outdoor opportunities. Other schools feature water-friendly green infrastructure with new facilities that are designed by professionals.

The swale near the Highland High Science Building in fall season

A few years ago, the Science teachers at Highland High School were happy to move into a new Science building, but there was no landscaping near the main entrance.  Gale Borkenhagen teaches the Advanced Environmental Science class, and she connected with other teachers who realized that the barren space was not going to pass.

Stormwater from the rooftop flows onto the site through two downspouts.  A retired teacher, Maura Montoya, dug a swale to slow and convey the water.  Overflow water was then conveyed into a nearby bare space through a pipe under a sidewalk.  Gale generated small grants from local funders, and bought a number of diverse trees.  Students have helped maintain the grove, with custodians adding water as needed.

Gale Borkenhagen visits the grove in winter.

The grove now becomes a mini-oasis in monsoon season, and it’s a textured, colorful space year-round.  Many of the trees provide shade on the building (saving energy) and an “encounter with nature” that people need for mental health and functioning.

Creative teachers nurture the love of nature throughout the public and charter school systems.  Teachers and students are building and growing edible gardens, and rain barrels or tanks can store rooftop rainwater for use in the dry months of the growing season.  There’s a lot of rooftops on school sites in New Mexico’s cities and towns .

Exploring an unused space at Valle Vista School

Observing the low and high, pervious and impervious areas.

Recently, two visitors explored a barren space with teacher Mike Goss at Valle Vista Elementary School.  Here is an opportunity site for a small grove that students can plant and love.

Currently, the water that flows off the nearby rooftop collects in the space with very compacted dirt, and slowly evaporates.  Instead, it could infiltrate into broken, loosened up, amended soil within earthworks (basins and swales), allowing new plant roots to uptake the water.

 Old and New Drainage Infrastructure

Highland High – drainage area at downspout on old building

Like many old school campuses, Highland High has a number of degraded outdoor spaces and stormwater problems near old buildings.

Look for new buildings that are built by the Albuquerque Public Schools; they may feature green infrastructure that was included in the design and budget for the building’s construction.

The newest building on the Highland High campus features connected basins on two sides of the building, with trees and bunch grasses planted near each basin (below).

Large basin with winter rain in front of new Highland High School building 

Inspiration on PBS KNME in January 2015

Water Blues Logo

New Mexico’s PBS station KNME will broadcast the documentary film WATER BLUES GREEN SOLUTIONS in January 2015.  The film presents US cities that are using stormwater to generate resilient landscapes in public parks, school yards and along streets.  Local Green Infrastructure supporters and designers made a request with Querencia Green to KNME to air the program – and KNME scheduled it on two stations.

  • Mon. Jan. 12          10:00 pm        KNME 5.1
  • Wed. Jan. 14           5:00 am         KNME 5.1
  • Sun. Jan. 25            9:00 pm         KNMD 9.1

The stories about urban water are from Philadelphia PA, Portland OR, The Bronx of  NYC and San Antonio TX (with its thorough water conservation and re-use strategy).  Neighbors and youth are involved in some of the featured projects, generating ecological know-how and job skills.

In addition to the video, WATER BLUES GREEN SOLUTIONS offers a website with tools for activating green solutions for flooding, pollution, and scarcity. It includes K-12 and higher education learning modules that could be adapted for arid places.  The video can be purchased on DVD.

“This initiative is designed to promote public education and awareness of “green infrastructure” and how natural processes can interface with and complement existing gray or manmade infrastructure. The ultimate project goal is an informed citizenry that is empowered to participate in the development of place specific strategies for addressing water issues.”   Penn State Media

Community work

Earthworks installation, Penn State Media

Many  green infrastructure techniques that work in wet climates have been adapted to suit the Southwest’s arid places; numerous New Mexicans are testing and implementing them.  A few of our community places highlight water harvesting, soil building strategies and native plants that support pollinators and other wildlife.  Expertise is growing as open courses for practitioners are offered.

Local government agencies have started to change the rules about stormwater to encourage rainwater harvesting with beneficial uses.  There are several wonderful environmental education programs that guide young people to care for the Rio Grande watershed.

More inspiration is advisable.  Watch WATER BLUES GREEN SOLUTIONS.

Stormwater Solutions and Opportunities

During the summer in New Mexico, you can expect to see a lot of rain fall to the earth within an hour.  A half-inch.  An inch.  Did you see the water flowing down the streets, carrying dirt, gravel, and pollutants? This monsoon season has offered several (though not enough) opportunities to get wet and see the impacts of stormwater, particularly in Albuquerque’s downtown area during a local storm.  The monsoon is also the time to appreciate visible, functioning Green Infrastructure.  Players across the mid Rio Grande region are designing and building green infrastructure as a stormwater management strategy with beneficial uses.

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Basins filled with rainwater are soothing and cooling, while they absorb water from rooftops and parking lots, allowing it to slowly infiltrate and nurture plants.  The basins in these photos were intentionally designed to prevent stormwater flooding problems.  Water that could have flowed onto streets or eroded a stream bank can instead spread, sink and nurture a living landscape.

Pine Cone Technology

Understanding your site is central in designing and nurturing a Green Infrastructure / Rainwater Harvesting solution.  One of the simplest and most elegant techniques I found this year is in Rick Borkovetz and Diane Scena’s front yard.

The native blue gramma grass is largely sustained by natural precipitation.  Rick describes: “The grass slopes downward to the sidewalk.  To solve the problem of losing precious stormwater that used to flow onto the sidewalk, we dug a small trench along the edge of the sidewalk and filled it with pine cones that drop from the trees overhead.  The trench captures the stormwater before it reaches the sidewalk.  This seems to be where many of the ‘feeder’ roots of the pines are located so the stormwater is concentrated where it will be most beneficial.  Over time, the pine cones break down into mulch that can then be shoveled back onto the grass, and the trench is refilled with new cones: a never ending cycle.”

Opportunities to Grow Water Solutions

The 2014 Forum for Innovative Stormwater Infrastructure will be on Friday afternoon, October 10 at UNM.   The New Mexico Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (NMASLA) convenes this open forum each year.  Six presentations from landscape architects, other professionals and advocates for green infrastructure will share their stories and news about projects and policies.  The forum is free and registration is required.

NMASLA also offers a great opportunity for hands-on learning, on the morning of October 10:  The Green Streets BootCamp with James DeRoussel from Tucson’s Watershed Management Group.  Registration and a fee are required.

Compost happens, but in this arid land it helps to have some knowledge and experience!   Master Composters teach others how to compost.  The training course to become a Master Composter is scheduled from October 11 to November 8 in the North Valley.  The course gives you the expertise to volunteer with Bernalillo County Extension Master Composters. There is a fee for the training and some volunteer hours are required.

Water Blues dvd Logo

We have the water blues, but green solutions are appearing in New Mexico and around the U.S.   Water Blues, Green Solutions is a documentary film about four cities that are confronting water quality and supply issues with innovations in green infrastructure, water conservation and strong public involvement programs.  Querencia Green and other champions are requesting a local TV broadcast of the film.  The DVD is available for home and educational screenings, and resources are available to explore on the website.

News: Water Harvesting Workshop, Garden Park Views

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The monsoon in central New Mexico has been delightful, frustrating, spotty and intense – we know what “variable” means!  Climate change is leading to more variability in precipitation while average monthly temperatures are on the rise.  We protect and enhance our places when we slow the flow of stormwater and efficiently use it for outdoor spaces.   With the potential El Niño next winter, there could be too much of a good thing!  Fortunately, householders are re-thinking and re-designing gardens and yards, and local classes and community projects are materializing.

Summer Class  – Intro to Water Harvesting and Green Infrastructure

Jeff Adams of terrasophia, LLC is providing an Introduction to Water Harvesting and Green Infrastructure workshop on August 23.  The final in a series of three workshops, Jeff covers a lot of territory about earthworks and catchment tanks, design and installation principles.  Slow it, spread it, sink it!

Jeff will be the lead instructor for the Rainwater Harvesting and Green Infrastructure certification course with the Watershed Management Group in September (the course is currently full).   He brings a practical and integrated approach to each project as a designer.  Jeff has a depth of experience in water harvesting training programs, including lead instructor for the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association’s (ARCSA) Accredited Professional training.

The Intro class is on Saturday, August 23, 1 – 3:00 pm, at the City’s Open Space Visitor Center, 5400 Coors Blvd. NW.  Register in advance:  

 La Mesa Neighborhood Garden Park Grows

Kyle Carr, producer of the local access TV program, Landscaping Southwest, visited the Garden Park on the first planting day in late Spring.  This video segment jump-starts with John Bulten of East Central Ministries (ECM) and Trey Hammond of La Mesa Presbyterian Church, followed by Joanne McEntire of Querencia Green.

The trees that we planted in the two basins with school children and youth are Desert Willow and Privet (NM Olive).  Shrubs include Utah Serviceberry, Sea Buckthorn, Cherry and Purple Sage, and Red Yucca.  After several weeks of hand watering, the plants are settling in with the monsoon.  Neighborhood youth crews have led the way in mulching, weeding and putting in penstemon and sage,  Everyone is welcome to visit the park at 406 Espanola NE.

A grant proposal for the Garden Park was chosen as a finalist for the August vote by ABQ Involved members.   ABQ Involved works with community groups  and creates short videos for members to view before they vote for their favorite – a fun, online way to support local organizations!





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


Seasonal Notes – Spring into Resilience

Water resilience rebates, free classes, and hands-on training

It still feels like Spring in mid-May, with snow dusting the tallest of the Sandia mountains—a perfect time to develop more resilience in using water.  Affordable or free materials and diverse learning opportunities make it even more possible to conserve and re-use.

If you really want to get your feet wet, Catlow Shipek from Watershed Management Group shares the news about their Rainwater Harvesting certification course in Albuquerque.   Bring it!

Tree love = mulch

Mulching shades the ground, retains moisture, and nurtures the small and microscopic critters that create living soil.  Wood mulch is sold at nurseries and by soil expert / local provider Soilutions.   Professional arborists and tree care companies may have extra wood mulch from the trees that they prune and remove, and you can pick up a load if you shovel it.  Or, DIY and recycle your branches and dead trees by renting a mulcher from a home and garden store.

Once you have the mulch, form an area around the tree’s drip line that will contain 3 inches of mulch.  Explore and view TreePeople‘s video for more.

Roll out the rainbarrels. (It will rain.)

Rebates for rain barrels are available from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.  You buy a barrel and send in the required form with the receipt.  The rebate amount is based on the size of the barrel.   (Also, a program that recognizes the drought’s impact on the urban forest, “Tree-bates,” helps pay for tree maintenance, such as irrigation equipment, fertilization or professional tree care.)  Free short classes on efficient outdoor water use, xeriscaping and how to benefit from the Water Authority’s rebate program are offered every month.

Living in the country?  Property owners in the unincorporated area of Bernalillo County who aren’t customers of the Water Authority can qualify to receive a 100-gallon rainbarrel with installation support for $40.  Rain barrels can provide water during wildfire emergencies as well as water for animals.

Materials for rainwater harvesting projects can be found at no or low cost through the ABQ Freecycle group and on Craigslist – farm and gardening.  Billy Kniffen is an terrific water harvester and offers videos on DIY barrels.

Watershed Management Group announces Water Harvesting  course

Catlow Shipek of the Watershed Management Group (WMG) provides this news:  WMG, a non-profit educational organization, is excited to bring its Water Harvesting Certification course to Albuquerque.  The 7-day intensive program, which will be offered September 15-21, provides the highest quality and greatest depth of training in integrative water harvesting offered in the nation. Join our list of Certified Practitioners to integrate new skills and knowledge into your practice, educational, or advocacy work.

This unique course includes hands-on training through actual implementation of a rain garden, plastic rain tank, and a laundry greywater system.  Instructors will include author Brad Lancaster, WMG co-founder Catlow Shipek, and Santa Fe based permaculture and water harvesting designer Jeff Adams.  An early registration discount is available until July 18th.


Designing to dig: La Mesa Garden Park

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Our second demonstration project reached an important milestone: Alicia Petersen presented the rainwater harvesting design plans for La Mesa Neighborhood Garden Park to the community partners.

The plan features two basins along the sidewalks to collect stormwater from the site and support native trees and shrubs with edible berries. The Desert Willow and New Mexico Olive are drought tolerant trees, yet they’ll take advantage of occasional flooding. Certain plants are adapted to desert precipitation patterns and the trees that we selected are also favorite natives.

The design plan also features a circular area with fruit trees in a basin that nearly surrounds the space. In time, the circle will create a sense of enclosure and become an inviting space for picnics and neighborly gatherings. A small basin planted with sage and yucca on the primary corner of the site will feature a low wall along the edge.

While developing the plans, team members also met with Jim Brooks of Brooks Terrain Systems. Jim has the local experience and equipment to move earth while thinking of water.

With the team’s acceptance of the design plans, we lost no time in moving some dirt. On a bright day we marked key areas with flags, and Jim set up his Dingo machine and started the grading work.  Two other team members arrived with needed supplies and energy.  Better yet, it wasn’t windy!

The Garden Park team continues to reach out to volunteers in the area. Joel Wooldridge, a team member from La Mesa Presbyterian Church, talked with local residents during their annual neighborhood meeting.  He noted that “Every one of them was thrilled about the project and its prospects for improving the area.”

The team will soon announce work parties to move rocks, plant trees and shrubs, and carry out an efficient watering plan. Students and neighbors will also be involved in creating gardening and art projects, shade structures and seating areas. To receive news about work parties, send a note to Winona at

Greener neighborhoods, especially those with green common areas, can encourage social bonding between neighbors and improve the social setting. Residents that are more attached to their community have higher levels of social cohesion and social control, less fear of crime. (University of Washington, Green Cities: Good Health)