The Santa Fe City Council voted 6 -2 Wednesday to pass an update to the city's 40-Year Water Plan that includes moving forward on a controversial proposal to build a pipeline from the Santa Fe Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plant to a location along the Rio Grande adjacent to the Buckman Direct Diversion.

The pipeline would allow the city to send treated effluent water back to the Rio Grande in exchange for return flow credits, rather than let it flow down the lower half of the Santa Fe River as it currently does.

State statute requires all municipalities to have a 40-year plan. The resolution introduced by Councilor Carol Romero Wirth updates the existing plan and extends it to the next 80 years.

The specific inclusion of the pipeline, however, happened when Councilor Peter Ives proposed an amendment to the resolution in what critics have called "a last minute dash" at a Public Utilities Committee meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 4, just one week prior to the City Council's vote.

The issue of the pipeline dominated Wednesday's meeting, the last of the calendar year. The debate was not held as a public hearing, so attendees did not get the chance to speak, but councilors discussed the issue for nearly two hours before passing the resolution.

Ives' amendment reflects arguments by city Water Division staff that the pipeline is critical to meeting future water shortages because it is the most efficient and cost effective option for reusing the city's current water supply and opens up flexibility for pursuing other reuse options in the future. The pipeline idea has been floated for decades, but within the last four years, staff have been working on the idea in earnest. This summer, the city held a series of open house meetings on the topic.

At Wednesday's meeting, city Water Division staff hammered home the importance of looking ahead and building needed reuse infrastructure now, before the city hits serious shortages. By 2050, the city could face shortages of as much as 9,000 acre feet per year, said Water Division Director Jessie Roach.

Water Resources Coordinator William Schneider presented a chart showing that each major water planning decision by the city since the 1930s was made either during or directly after a serious drought, a pattern Mayor Alan Webber called a "serious failure to get ahead of the problem."

The pipeline, said city staff, is the best bet for breaking this pattern and ensuring the security of water sources in the future.

Yet, the project has been met with considerable opposition from several local environmental organizations and vocal residents and from Santa Fe County government.

Councilors say in the week since Ives introduced the amendment, they have received hundreds of calls and emails raising questions about the project.

Critics say the city has not done enough to inform the public about the project or include stakeholders in decision-making.

In an email to the council members, Claudia Borchert, who spent many years working for the city water division before taking a job at the county sustainability division, wrote that she felt "distraught by the lack of transparency in the process."

Borchert raised concerns that the city has not answered questions about how it will address the uncertainty of future water levels in the Rio Grande and depletion of regional water tables due to both privately owned county and city owned wells, and has not adequately considered alternative strategies for reusing and conserving wastewater.

Other critics worry the pipeline could negatively impact downstream farmers who use traditional acequia systems and pueblos that rely on water flowing down the lower part of the Santa Fe River and that it could jeopardize a living river ecosystem.

County Commissioner Anna Hansen sent an email to the Council in which she asked for further clarification and discussion of the project.

"This issue of the pipeline deserves a public hearing," Hansen wrote. "This is a topic for City and County policy makers as well as downstream users and the Pueblo of Cochiti. We all want long term water planning. Let's hear peoples voices."

At the Wednesday's meeting, Romero-Wirth spent a full 45 minutes interviewing city staff about the nuts and bolts of the plan, its history, and how it could benefit the city.

Here's how it breaks down:

In the 1970s, the city of Santa Fe bought rights to 5,000 acre feet of Colorado River water that was diverted into the Rio Grande by what's called the San-Juan Chama Project. However, until the Buckman Direct Diversion and water treatment plant were built in 2012, this water was not available for municipal potable use. Once the BDD was built, the city rolled this source into its supply options.

About 60% of all the water that runs through city pipes and homes gets returned down to the wastewater treatment plant, where it is treated and then released into the Santa Fe River. That means that 60% of the Colorado River water that city ratepayers bought is being released as well, and it is this water that the city proposes to divert back up to the Rio Grande—in the hopes that with a series of other permits, it will get permission to withdraw more water using that "credit."

Staff said the pipeline would allow the city to consider other reuse options as well, such as treating diverted water to potable standards at the BDD, or using it to replenish the Buckman well fields.

The Rio Grande water from the BDD is not the city's only source of water. The portion of water that originates in the city well fields and the reservoirs won't end up in the return pipeline, staff told the council.

Councilor Roman Abeyta asked questions that highlighted the fact that while the diverted water may have benefited downstream users for some time, it is not native to the area and is being paid for by city ratepayers who are not getting full use of it. He voted in favor of the plan.

Councilors Renee Villarreal and JoAnne Vigil-Coppler both voted against the resolution, citing lack of public input and other objections.

Ives tells SFR the city hopes to fund the $20 million pipeline through grants and must go through an extensive permitting process before the project can break ground. According to the city, as many as 28 permits may be required.