Over the course of a sunny weekend, the trails along the Santa Fe River are alive with activity—bikers and joggers, children in swimsuits, teenagers and families picnicking in the parks along the river. It's been a wet spring, and the banks have become lush thanks to a more consistent flow of water than most residents can recall in recent years.
"I think that the river is beautiful when it flows. I love it when there is water," Brenda Reyes tells SFR in Spanish as she and her daughters Sheila and Leily walk along the southernmost stretch of river trail before Highway 599. The family lives in Riverside de Santa Fe Mobile Home Park, located near the trailhead. Reyes says she just discovered the trail, but already it is one of the things she loves most about her neighborhood. "It is very safe and they do good maintenance, and I feel happy that my family can be close to nature," says Reyes.
Sheila recently took a field trip to the city reservoirs with her class and learned about habitat conservation and water management. "We need to keep the river clean because animals could eat the trash," she says, "but if we take care of the environment we can all be here together. The bunnies and the people and the dogs and everyone."
This trail is part of the Santa Fe River Greenway project, a collaboration between the city and the county to connect downtown to the Wastewater Treatment Plant west off Highway 599 via 15 miles of parks, trails and open space, of which about half have been completed.
In 2007, the nonprofit American Rivers named the Santa Fe River as America's Most Endangered River. Since then, much has been done to restore the river's riparian habitat, including the 2012 passage of the Living River Initiative, an ordinance pledging to maintain the ecological health of the river through periodic releases of up to 1,000 acre-feet per year of water from Nichols Reservoir to mimic some elements of natural flood cycles.
Yet how to best fulfill the mandates of the law while maintaining adequate water levels in the reservoir and fulfilling the acequia water rights deliveries is a matter fraught with disagreement, says Galen Hecht, Rio Grande campaigner with Wild Earth Guardians. The organization started a wetlands restoration project near the Santa Fe Airport in 2010, and is part of a wide coalition of groups and citizens who recently sent a letter to the city calling for greater public involvement in a range of water management issues including the living river.
Among other things, the letter claims that the city is not fully meeting its responsibilities as outlined in the 2012 ordinance. However, Santa Fe River Commission Staff Liaison and River Watershed Coordinator Melissa McDonald says that the city makes careful calculations based on winter snowpack and early precipitation to determine the amount of water allowed down the river channel in accordance with the ordinance. This number, she says, can be as low as 300 acre-feet per year in drought conditions.
Near Frenchy's Field, Bethzaide Juarez and her daughter Lavender Rodriguez walk their dogs down the bank to romp in the water. Juarez says people who live here shouldn't have to choose between a living river and municipal water management.
"We just need to teach Santa Fe to be more waterwise," says Juarez. "The other day we saw the sprinklers going on city property up by Alameda, and it had been raining all week and it was even raining that day, too! I don't think the city engages the public enough. That's why we need to speak up when we get the chance."
Further down the path, two bicyclists who live off of Agua Fría stop to tell SFR the restoration of the river has added immensely to the quality of their lives. One of the women, Lynne Canning, says that years ago she worked with a group to approach stakeholders and property owners along the riverbanks to get easements on the land to enable the restoration. "This project has always been done in conjunction with the community," Canning says, "and without the community and the city working hand in hand, it wouldn't exist at all."
Danielle Gothie adds, "Part of it is establishing the riparian area so that our wildlife can be here—birds in particular. It has been great to watch swallows come back and inhabit the area."
But at least one person says their greatest concern is municipal water supply. "The water level in the reservoirs depends on snowpack, and unfortunately at some point we will need to prioritize people over wildlife," says Carlos Vigil, hiking past Two Mile Pond along the Nature Conservancy's Santa Fe Canyon Preserve Trail that starts on Upper Canyon Road. He says his grandfather once owned a house on Cerro Gordo Road and used to take him to pick fruit from the abandoned orchards that have long since disappeared from the riverbanks.
"I love this river, but our climate is changing. I have concerns about who would suffer first from water shortages in the future, because it would probably be the more poverty-stricken people who are already struggling to live here in Santa Fe," he says. "This is why true public participation and not just participation of environmental groups is important."
Editor's Note: The original version of this story attributed the word "historic" to Santa Fe River Commission Staff Liaison and River Watershed Coordinator Melissa McDonald's description of a section of the Santa Fe River channel. McDonald does not consider that section of the channel to be the "historic" section.