For years, Santa Fe County officials have been working on a development code that would incentivize smaller, more sustainable subdivisions. 

Developers, meanwhile, have been hoping, struggling and even suing to get their proposals approved before the stringent new rules take effect. Joe Miller, who has been trying to get his Spirit Wind West subdivision going since the 1990s, last year settled three lawsuits with Santa Fe County over impediments to the project.

Last week, the Santa Fe Board of County Commissioners finally voted 4-0 in favor of the first phase of Miller's project, a 39-lot, 133-acre subdivision to be built on land he owns along Hwy. 285, near Lamy.

Yet the project remains controversial. It's one of at least five subdivisions in the works that would be served by the Eldorado Area Water and Sanitation District, which has struggled in the past to deliver water to area residents. Critics worry that—given the county's limited water supply, the grinding drought and the prospect of climate change—the new developments could render Santa Fe County's water supply unsustainable. In short, they say, nobody's seeing the big picture.

"The process only looks at one development at a time," says Roger Taylor, the president of the Santa Fe Basin Water Association, which opposes Miller's development. "If you step back and start looking at it from a cumulative impact, there are a lot of questions that the community has."

BCC Chair Kathy Holian, who calls Taylor's concerns "valid," recused herself from the recent vote. While media reports have said Miller considered suing Holian for bias if she voted on his project, Miller says that wasn't the case.

"We never threatened anybody," he says. "We just felt she should recuse herself. Our attorney talked to her attorney."

Miller, who is working on three other subdivisions in the Eldorado area, says he gave five of his wells to EAWSD in 2008. He claims Spirit Wind West has "more than double" the water it needs, and that opponents simply don't want a subdivision in their backyard.

"People just don't like them," he says of modular homes, which Spirit Wind West will use. "They think they're mobile homes or something."

Still, the area's water supply is hardly assured. A 2007 report by Glorieta Geoscience Inc., a Santa Fe-based consulting firm, found that EAWSD would need to drill six new wells to meet current water demand for the next 100 years. EAWSD President Jim Jenkins says the utility has already drilled two and is working to find additional sites.

But Duncan Sibley, an Eldorado resident and retired geology professor who opposes Spirit Wind West, says the Glorieta report doesn't address future trends.

"That doesn't take into account the [new] subdivisions," he says, "or the fact that, with climate change bringing us warmer and warmer weather, we can expect summer water demand to increase."

According to a 2010 peer-reviewed study by University of New Mexico climatologist David Gutzler, in the Southwest, most of the second half of this century will be drier than the two worst droughts of the 20th century. And a February memo from the Office of the State Engineer takes the Glorieta report a step further, concluding that six of EAWSD's wells "will fail" by the end of this century.

At last week's meeting, one commissioner hinted that the Eldorado area may be able to tap into a planned pipeline from the Buckman Direct Diversion, which diverts water from the Rio Grande to part of Santa Fe County. But Jenkins says he isn't sure if the pipeline will ever be built.

And Spirit Wind isn't the only project in the works. Cielo Colorado, another proposed subdivision, would add 67 residential lots south of I-25. EAWSD recently gave the project a "ready, willing and able" letter, effectively promising to furnish it with water.

But the OSE has expressed skepticism about the utility's ability to deliver on such a promise.

"The amount of connections EAWSD is currently serving, or the number of outstanding service commitments not yet connected, is not known," OSE Senior Water Resource Specialist Julie Valdez wrote in January. Jenkins says the utility is gathering that information.

Once the county's Sustainable Land Development Code is implemented, Holian says, some questions will be put to rest. Miller, for his part, is pushing to get his four subdivisions in motion before the new code, which he says will halt all future development, takes effect.

"There is no water shortage," he says. "Water is a nonissue."