Maureen McCarthy, left, of Rio Grande Return and Ancestral Land program coordinator Glen Catlin Ami retrieve willows that have been soaking in the Rio Grande in order to be planted Feb. 23. Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal

CORRALES – It’s not easy creating a wetland along the banks of the Rio Grande.

Crews need to remove invasive plant species while avoiding bird nesting season. Sometimes beavers use the cottonwoods that are prime for planting as a midnight buffet.

And the team moves dirt – tons and tons of dirt.

But a coalition of local governments and conservation groups has spent months improving stormwater and wastewater channels and planting cottonwoods and willows to build 10 acres of riverside habitat off Corrales Road.

Sarah Hurteau, The Nature Conservancy’s New Mexico climate change program director, said the “magic of a green stormwater infrastructure approach” happens in the soil.

“Soil microbes like fungi and bacteria that are in healthy soils are what break down pollutants, both physically and chemically trapping them and preventing them from moving further into the river,” Hurteau said.

Last fall, Rio Rancho had been preparing to fix its treated wastewater outfall at the project site, and the city agreed to pay $190,000 to realign the structure so the water helped create a wetland.

The Southern Sandoval County Arroyo Flood Control Authority removed sediment and trash from the Harvey Jones Channel that runs through Corrales to prepare for when the project is operational in a few weeks.

“This is sort of like the final finishing station for cleaning any pollutants that may be suspended in that stormwater before it reaches the river,” Hurteau said.

The rerouted wastewater structure will release about 4 million to 5 million gallons of water each day into the new wetland area, said Dave Gatterman, the SSCAFCA’s executive engineer.

The Harvey Jones Channel also brings about 4.5 million gallons each year.

“That has always been the Achilles’ heel of any type of wetlands project that’s been attempted, is (when) we don’t have consistent water,” Gatterman said.

New channels will direct the treated wastewater and stormwater back to the river, so the wetland area has a water supply during low and high flows.

“We think that the cycles of the seasons will help us here,” Gatterman said.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and the Albuquerque Metropolitan Area Flood Control Authority helped excavate the channels to recontour the riverside areas.

About 25,000 tons of dirt from the excavation went to the Sandoval County landfill for that facility to use as cover material.

The crew removed invasive plant species such as Russian olive, salt cedar and Siberian elm before planting native species along the channels that lead to the river. The Village of Corrales will help with future invasive plant removal.

Reid Whittlesey, restoration director for Rio Grande Return, said his team is planting about 30,000 willows and 100 cottonwoods – minus a few that hungry beavers munched on one night by the river.

The volunteers harvested willows from Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

“It’s actually really convenient for them as well as us, because they were just going to mow the ditches anyways,” Whittlesey said.

At the refuge, the harvested willow stems soaked for two weeks, which helps trigger root growth.

Small rock dams in the channels will help slow down the water flow so it can fill up all the channels.

Hurteau said wetland grasses in the channel will help with filtration and provide habitat for species like the Rio Grande silvery minnow.

“It’s exciting, and it’s all a little bit of an experiment, so we will see what happens when we start getting flows through here,” she said.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

A ditch is being lined with 30,000 willows and 100 cottonwoods along the Rio Grande off Corrales Road. Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal