No city can survive without access to fresh, clean water. And securing Santa Fe's water future will require a community effort.

This week, the city is hosting two "public availability sessions" to bring residents up-to-date with these realities and to get involved with the city's latest strategies for ensuring Santa Fe's "sustainable water future."

The first of these meet-and-greats with city water division staff  happened Tuesday. In case you missed the invite, the next one is scheduled for Thursday evening from 4:30-7 pm at the Fogelson Library on the campus of the defunct Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

Wastewater gets treated at the Santa Fe Wastewater Treatment Plant. The city hopes to pipe this water back to the Rio Grande as part of a reuse strategy.
Wastewater gets treated at the Santa Fe Wastewater Treatment Plant. The city hopes to pipe this water back to the Rio Grande as part of a reuse strategy. | Leah Cantor

One of the most pressing parts of the strategies on display is the city's plan to exchange municipal wastewater for water from the Rio Grande to increase the overall city supply.

Staff who are seated at tables around the room are available to talk about Santa Fe river hydrology, how water fits into the city's 25-year sustainability strategy, and residential and commercial conservation strategies.

Every kid who grew up in Santa Fe knows that "saving water is always in season," to steal a phrase from city-sponsored posters that have hung in public restrooms across the city since the late 90s.

The city's public campaign to reduce annual water consumption and other water conservation initiatives are a success story for the city. Between 1997 and 2014, the annual average of gallons of water used per capita per day dropped by nearly half.

But a 2015 study predicts that the city could start experiencing water shortages as early as 2035 even with current conservation strategies in place. The city needs to implement new strategies now to meet this challenge head on, Water Division Director Jessie Roach tells SFR.

The most obvious answer: Figure out how to reuse the water we have. And among the many possible strategies, a report recently commissioned by the city concluded that the most cost effective and feasible option is to pump wastewater from the treatment plant located at the southern edge of the city all the way up to the Buckman Direct Diversion at the spot where the city pulls and its shares from Rio Grande.

If the city puts its wastewater back into the Rio Grande at Buckman instead of letting it flow down the lower half of the Santa Fe River, it would be eligible for "return-flow-credits." These credits mean Santa Fe will be able to divert more water from the Rio Grande without having to pay for additional shares.

Roach says he'd be happy to discuss the details with residents again on Thursday evening.

"We want people to realize that yes, the planning process is based on the best available science, but it's also based on public engagement," Roach tells SFR. "As we look to the future, public input and participation will be crucial to help shape various scenarios."

But if what the city wanted was a conversation with average Santa Fe Residents, it missed the mark Tuesday.

The  event was not listed on the city website's homepage or calendar of events, and the Tuesday evening crowd was made up mostly of individuals who are already involved in city government in some capacity or deal with water professionally.

Still, having all the experts in the same room at the same time is exactly what makes this such a great opportunity for anyone interested in the future of the city's water supply—and its not just experts who work for the city who are there to chat.

Denise Fort is a UNM law professor with a background in environmental and natural resource law, and is currently the citizen member of the Buckman Direct Diversion Board.

Fort disagrees with city's conclusions that "return flow credits" are the best way to reuse wastewater, and she is critical of the city's engagement process so far.

Fort tells SFR that the plan does not account for "the uncertainty in draining water" from the Rio Grande due to unpredictable factors such as snowpack flows to the Colorado River, or Albuquerque's decisions as to the quantity of their allotted water that they release from the Abiquiu Lake Reservoir.

To Fort, this week's events are too little too late.

"They've pretty much already decided that this is the reuse strategy they will use," Fort tells SFR.

"They should have started a legitimate process to include the city, the county, and local residents at the start when they first got that information," she says, referring to the study that analyzed various wastewater reuse possibilities.

But Bruce Thompson, another UNM professor who teaches civil engineering specifically related to water projects, had an opposite opinion of the event. "This meeting has just been great. So many people showed up with such different perspectives to bring to the conversation," he says, adding that Santa Fe is unusually lucky for a Southwestern city to have so many alternative sources to add to the water supply.