Santa Fe was graced with a beautiful white winter and our gardens are already greener than they've been in years. But this is no excuse to slack on saving water, says David Gutzler. The University of New Mexico climatologist is among watchers who predict that as our climate continues to get hotter, rapid snow melt, increased evaporation and depleting water tables will lead to longer periods of severe drought in New Mexico.

But when it comes to how communities feel the impact, Gutzler tells SFR, "a lot of that will depend on how we choose to manage water. As droughts get more severe, it means that the rules we've set up are going to be put under stress.  How we get through those drought periods is a matter of policy as much as it is about how nature provides us with water."

It's about changing out habits and our policies before we face serious shortages, not afterwards.

That's why the city of Santa Fe has invited the community to the brainstorming table to come up with new conservation strategies for the 2020 update to its five-year water conservation plan.

The city has already convened meetings on topics such as climate change and water resiliency, residential water use and commercial water efficiency. The final public meeting is scheduled for May 11 at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center to discuss community collaborations and partnerships.

"We're trying to do something totally different," says Christine Chavez, the city's water conservation manager. "In the past we would formulate the plan first and then try to get input at that end, and it just doesn't always work. … There also weren't really any specific step-by-step goals or programs in past plans. If we really want the community to buy into the plan and participate, then it would be best to try to capture their ideas as we formulate our goals going forward."

In Santa Fe, the biggest uses of water are summer irrigation and commercial use, says Chavez. An outdoor rebate program incentivizes rain water harvesting, gray water use and efficient irrigation systems to help combat water waste. Summer water regulations and increased rates go into effect May 1, which means it's also a good time to check out the city's EyeOnWater app aimed at helping residents monitor use at home and detect leaks.

"Half the time people don't realize that they have a leak because a lot of the time you would never hear it, and if you don't pay much attention to your bill you would never know," Chavez tells SFR.

In November, the city partnered with the Green Chamber of Commerce on a pilot program to help restaurants in commercial centers measure individual water use with new monitoring technologies. Future pilots could include hotels, assisted living facilities and medical centers.

Residents Weigh In

Santa Fe has cut back water use by nearly half from 168 gallons per capita per day in 1995 to 90 gpcd by 2017, despite population growth. In 2018, water use rose slightly to 95.5 gpcd. Chavez says we can and need to do better. She says some of the most creative new ideas have come from residents. Here are some of the best:

  • Participants said shaming people who waste water (a tactic SFR has employed in the past) is less effective than rewarding people’s efforts. Thus, the idea of annual water-saving contests between residents, neighborhood associations, commercial users or schools.
  • “It’s crazy that we use fresh drinking water to flush our toilets,” says Chavez. Alternatives include transitioning to composting toilets; plumbing captured rainwater back to the tank; and setting up sink-to-toilet plumbing.
  • Initiate a startup accelerator project focusing on water conservation.
  • Require new residential developments to limit runoff and include gray water harvesting and rain-capture systems.
  • Call for more conservation education in schools; one idea includes teaching kids two-minute shower songs to encourage short shower habits, as currently done in South Africa.

What you can do at home:

Get inspired to save more water at home with some of these tips from other Santa Fe residents:

  • In the bathroom: According to the EPA, the standard faucet uses 2.2 gallons of water per minute, and the standard shower head uses at least 5 gpm. Install faucet aerators that can reduce flow to 1.5 gpm and low-flow shower heads that use 2.5 gpm or less. Collect shower water in a bucket to flush the toilet or water outdoors. Use the classic brick-in-the-toilet-tank trick to use less water per flush. Take shorter showers and turn off the tap while you wash your face, shave or brush your teeth.
  • In the kitchen: With a full load, the dishwasher uses less water than hand washing. Use a tub to collect rinse water for the garden.
  • In the garden: Don’t buy plants at big-box stores, which rarely sell drought-resistant garden plants—instead, buy native varieties at a local nursery. Use rain barrels to capture water from those summer storms and consider the city’s rebate program to set up gray water harvesting. Put a timer on your drip irrigation, water by hand and install a hose-end water meter.

Summer Water Restrictions

Water use restrictions start May 1 and are in effect until Oct. 31 for city water customers. If you don't follow the rules, you could get fined up to $200 for each violation, so here's are some highlights (and if you spot a violator, call the water conservation hotline at 955-4222):

  • Outside watering is prohibited between 10 am and 6 pm.
  • Only water three days a week.
  • Make sure you’ve got a permit for new irrigation systems and major renovations. You’ll also need a permit to use a power washer.
  • Don’t let water run off your property.
  • Wash your car no more often than once a month, with a hose that has a nozzle that automatically shuts off when not in use. Commercial car washes recycle their water, by the way, so maybe spring for a pro job.