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A compendium of worst-case scenarios, what-ifs, water heroes and wasters

June 8, 2011, 1:00 am

Humankind’s most recently scheduled date with the apocalypse came and went without much fanfare. But in New Mexico this year, with fire scorching the ground, smoke filling the air and drought settling in, it doesn’t exactly feel like we’ve gotten off scot-free.

Parts of the state are suffering through the driest periods since records have been kept, ie, well over 100 years. The federal government has allowed ranchers emergency grazing access to restricted grasslands in several New Mexico counties, but the cattle and hay industries are still set to take a brutal loss. And kids certainly won’t be fishing in the Santa Fe River this year. Everyone is trying to forget dire predictions of a megadrought, but no one trusts the clouds to bring reprieve anytime soon.

Peak oil is entrenched as a sound bite in the mainstream media and energy resources are a discussion issue at every level of government, but no one really talks about peak water. Access to plentiful, cheap, clean water is taken as a given—even in the dry southwestern United States—but it may just be our most precarious resource.

What are the major threats to our water supply in Santa Fe and how can we better manage and allocate it?


A study published this past February in the weekly science journal Nature starts off with what sounds like good news. Scientists examined a 270-foot core sample pulled from New Mexico’s Valles Caldera and used some fancy techniques (er, molecular palaeotemperature proxies, anyone?) to examine sedimentary layers, determine dry and wet periods, and think deeply about interglacial climatic variability.

The conclusion is that “in the absence of anthropogenic forcing, the region should be entering a cooler and wetter phase.” Hurray! Except we have lots of “anthropogenic forcing,” otherwise known as human-induced climate change, possibly enough to tip us in the other direction altogether. Principal researcher and University of New Mexico associate professor Peter Fawcett told the New York Times, “…we are certainly increasing the possibility of crossing a critical threshold to severe and lasting drought conditions.”

Maybe that’s why the study is titled “Extended megadroughts in the southwestern United States during Pleistocene interglacials.”

Fire in the Watershed

The Santa Fe Watershed—the drainage area out of the Pecos Wilderness that fills our reservoirs to the tune of 40 percent of Santa Fe’s drinking water—has been closed to the public since 1932 in order to minimize fire danger. 

After the Cerro Grande fire in 2000, the City of Santa Fe commissioned a report from Hydrosphere Resource Consultants to determine the watershed’s vulnerability. The results were bleak. The watershed is thick with the kind of wild vegetation on which fires thrive. An uncontrolled fire in the watershed would fill the reservoirs with a thick coating of ash; subsequent erosion would deposit even more ash and sediment in the reservoirs, reducing their capacities and rendering the water unusable for years. 

According to city Water Resources and Conservation Manager Rick Carpenter, “Some estimates say it would take up to 10 years for the reservoirs to recover enough to produce drinking water.” Carpenter says that, prior to the Buckman Direct Diversion project, that kind of hit in capacity would have meant severe water restrictions. But the BDD is capable of handling the city’s daily needs—unless we’re in a megadrought.

The other good news is that controlled burns and aggressive management over the past decade have reduced the likelihood of an uncontrollable fire in the watershed.

Radioactive Contamination/Pollution

While it’s comforting to know that the Buckman Direct Diversion can provide for the city’s water needs, some city residents and activists remain concerned that the water, diverted from the Rio Grande, will be subject to radionuclides from Los Alamos National Laboratory and other upstream contaminants.

Radiological contaminants have been demonstrated to enter the Rio Grande through Los Alamos Canyon during periods of storm-water runoff. During high runoff, concentrations of contaminants have sometimes exceeded the levels deemed to be “safe” by regulatory agencies. However, in addition to a water treatment facility designed to remove any such contaminants, the BDD has a shut-off mechanism to prevent taking in water during high runoff periods.

Additional filters and steps in the treatment plant are designed to remove chemicals and pollutants associated with industrial waste, pesticides and pharmaceutical products. But Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, remains concerned about the treatment process. 

Challenging scenarios like drought, fire and radiation, she says, compound each other. “We’ve built a nuclear weapons facility in a wildfire zone and an active seismic area above our drinking water supply. That’s really the worst case scenario—what we already have,” Arends says.

Concern over the potential for seismic activity to cause a catastrophic radiation leak at LANL has heightened in the wake of recent events in Japan. If an earthquake cracks LANL in half, all bets are off.


In an April 20 article in High Country News, writer Matt Weiser pointed out that Federal Bureau of Reclamation data indicates that reservoir capacity in 11 Western states has dropped by 8 percent, or “enough water to serve at least 9 million households.”

All dams naturally collect sediment. According to Weiser’s article, many dams both ancient and modern incorporate systems for flushing sediment, but the concept never took hold in the United States during the heyday of dam construction. Reservoirs without the ability to remove sediment are essentially unsustainable infrastructure with limited life spans.

Anyone with a barrel under a canale knows the art of capturing water in an arid landscape is, like a few other things, all about size. The bigger the barrel, the wetter the result.

New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir was built in 1915 with the capacity to store 2.6 million acre-feet of water. Thus far, 600,000 acre-feet of storage have been lost to sedimentary buildup.


The New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources, in partnership with New Mexico Tech, has performed extensive aquifer mapping in the state. Around Santa Fe, it’s clear that a steady decline in subsurface water levels has continued more or less unabated since initial levels were noted. A typical well in Santa Fe demonstrates an average drop of 1.5 feet per year over the past 57 years.

Statewide, the largest consumption of water resources is the agricultural industry—a key piece of the regional economy and a potential linchpin for food security going into the future. Environmentalists and some policy makers would like to see better management of the water used for agriculture, and a stronger push toward reusing and recycling.

But such practices demand investment in treatment plants to ensure the reused water is safe for crops intended for human consumption. In addition, reused water has an altered mineral content and typically contains much higher levels of salinity. The shift in mineral content means that huge amounts of time and money would need to be poured into soil management and remediation in order to keep crop yields high and healthy.

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