Voices from the River: Diversifying Questa

By Toner Mitchell

By watering crops and providing trout for the table, the Red River has fed Questa for centuries, even through the inception of large-scale molybdenum mining and emergence of a cash economy in the early 1900s. 

As frequently happens with mines, Questa’s left a legacy of pollution and has been under remediation for some time. Less known is how the Red has been physically altered by misguided efforts at flood control. Downstream from the mine and through the village, one can easily see how rarely the stream channel departs from the exact width of a bulldozer shovel. As a result, this stream reach is either too fast or too slow and silt laden to hold trout in large quantities.  

Several years before the mine’s permanent closure in 2014, Questa’s leaders understood that their town needed to diversify its economy like many Rocky Mountain towns had done, or go extinct like so many others. While hewing to its agrarian traditions, the village has chosen to develop its potential as a recreational hub. With treasures like the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, the Latir Peaks and Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Areas, the Valle Vidal unit, and several ski areas at its doorstep, such a strategy makes sense.  

Significantly, Questa recognized its central location as a fishing destination and decided to enhance its abundant aquatic assets, starting with the restoration of the Red River near Eagle Rock Lake and the Red River State Fish Hatchery in the winter of 2013-2014. The project was a valuable lesson in partnership, in which the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish leveraged contributions from the Questa Economic Development Fund ($70,000) and the Enchanted Circle and Truchas Chapters of Trout Unlimited ($10,000) into $800,000 worth of plunge pools, bank countouring, and other trout habitat improvements to approximately two miles of the Red. Chevron Mining provided access and easements, the Forest Service and BLM contributed planning expertise, and The LOR Foundation supplied $35,000 in additional funds to complete the project and support the goal of stimulating angler and tourist visitation. 

Questa has since received significant funding to continue restoration. In early December of 2018, the village implemented a grant (approximately $150,000) from the New Mexico Environment Department’s River Stewards program, restoring 1,100 additional feet of river immediately below Eagle Rock Lake. Hopefully by the end of 2019, Natural Resource Damage Assessment funds (over $1 million associated with mine impacts) will become available to complete restoration through Questa.  

It’s important to stress that, though formerly among the most popular fisheries in New Mexico, mining impacts and channel manipulation had reduced the Red River to a fraction of its former greatness. In a sense, a large section of this immensely productive stream was subtracted from the total mileage of fishable water in the state. Put another way, however, New Mexico now has fishing water that it didn’t have before, or at least for a very long time. In an arid landscape such as ours, this fact is enormously significant. 

One might think that 1,100 feet of new stream doesn’t amount to much. And one would be wrong. On a stream the size of the Red, a good many anglers could consume an hour or two to fish fishing through the stretch. For perspective, a 2018 population survey of a 100-meter reach of the Red River below the hatchery yielded over 200 adult rainbow and brown trout. There’s ample reason to believe such a population is possible in the village stretch as well. In other words, plenty of fish for plenty of people. 

Naturally, anglers would fish through the newly restored water and continue through the previously restored Eagle Rock section to complete their day, during which they might take a lunch break in Questa. Over time, anglers might develop a taste for a favorite menu item at a restaurant or cafe. They’d buy gas, fishing tackle, maybe a cup of coffee or two. They’d hear stories of the town’s colorful history, which might inspire them to stop by the Questa church and wonder at how magnificently it was restored through the shared passion of village residents. Perhaps most important, they’d tell their friends that the best of Questa fishing is the village itself.  

Toner Mitchell is TU's water and habitat coordinator for New Mexico. He lives and works in Santa Fe. 

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