The Arroyo Chamiso starts near the botanical gardens on Museum Hill and St. John's College, runs north of the Albertsons at the south end of St. Francis, underneath the railway trestle, and south by the Genoveva Chavez Community Center. There, it meets the city's largest arroyo, and perhaps the ancestral course of the Santa Fe River, the Arroyo Hondo. The Arroyo de los Pinos runs through the middle of the city, by the parks.

"In parts of it, you get down in there and it's like, 'Wow, this is a pristine urban forest,' and it feels kind of neat," says Andy Otto, executive director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association. "Other parts of it, it's like, 'Wow this is really dangerous'—like if there's a cloud in the sky, don't go near them."

There's a beautiful patterning to learning the city not by its circuitous streets, but by the veins through which the water runs. This geography groups neighborhoods around some 80 miles of arroyos webbed through town, eventually feeding the Santa Fe River. But ultimately, says Aaron Kauffman, founder of Southwest Urban Hydrology and a contributor for technical reports for the association, arroyos mark a landscape out of balance.

"Arroyos are pretty good indication that not only has there been some disturbance, but they're drawing water out of the landscape, they're pulling water out of the landscape faster," Kauffman says.

The Santa Fe River is fed by some 80 miles of arroyos webbed through town.
The Santa Fe River is fed by some 80 miles of arroyos webbed through town. | David Groenfeldt

So the Santa Fe Watershed Association, recognized in the Best of Santa Fe readers' poll last year as the region's Best Nonprofit for the Environment, is launching a program to adopt arroyos. The strategy is patterned after the organization's 18-year-old river clean-up efforts that aim to remove garbage and slow erosion. Some of that effort will start far upstream, in gains made an actual foot at a time.

Volunteer crews are adopting a "reach," a 2,000-foot section of an arroyo. The goal comes down to a simple recipe for the water, Otto says: "Our mantra is, 'Slow it, spread it, sink it.'"

Historically, sandy plains characterized Northern New Mexico. Early colonists wrote about open basins braided with streams people could hop across without wetting their boots. But over the centuries, those channels have eroded. In downtown Santa Fe, pavement, rooftops and soil compaction, all of which prevent water from running over and seeping into the ground, are leading contributors to the problem.

As water channelizes into a few streambeds, it runs at higher volumes and faster speeds, and erodes more of the soil around it. The result is visible in the Santa Fe River, once level with Water Street, and now at least a dozen feet below it. Continued erosion can threaten adjacent homes, as well as the sewer and water lines crossing arroyos and, in the case of the Arroyo Torreon, potentially expose a historic city dump.

Some of these gains will be achieved in inches—literally. Environmental laws allow modifications to a streambed of up to 12 inches without chasing a flood of paperwork for approvals, so work could see volunteers placing 12-inch-tall rocks in smaller channels to slow the water and stall out sediment. Other measures will work to slow the water from cutting deeper channels, or collect sediment where it may block water and can host willows. Work is still in planning stages, and likely will target upper reaches.

Some solutions could start well outside the territory La Llorona is said to haunt—in rain gardens in backyards and alongside parking lots, and other rain catchments.

"One of the ways to help arroyos heal or address some of the problems is just to deprive them of runoff," Kauffman says. "The more we can do to store stormwater in soils, the better."

But will this map of the city disappear? Not any time soon. These channels can form in decades. Recovering can take millennia.