Santa Fe’s trees are notably stressed, the earth is dusty and dry, and the dark clouds that occasionally gather overhead have resulted in only a few unfulfilling, scattered showers in 2021 so far.
For those paying attention, it’s another dire year of drought and all the potential environmental disasters that accompany such conditions.
On Wednesday evening the Santa Fe City Council recognized the obvious, passing a resolution declaring extreme drought conditions in the city. Councilors took some action, too, imposing restrictions on fires and banning the sale of fireworks for the second time this year. Campfires, bonfires, charcoal grilling on public land, smoking in parks, burning trash and other activities are prohibited after the unanimous vote in favor of the resolution.
The US Drought Monitor declared extreme drought conditions for Santa Fe County on March 23, and the city adopted its first extreme drought resolution in April. The city is required to reconfirm restrictions every month until—and if—the drought ends.
“The reason this is coming up every month for the public is because that’s what the state law requires. Every month until the drought is gone we will continue to bring these restrictions up,” says Councilor Chris Rivera during the meeting.
The parched spring continues an exceptionally dry streak for Santa Fe that resulted in 2020 being one of the driest years in recent memory.
The statistics are startling.
According to a recently released City of Santa Fe 2020 Annual Water Report, precipitation in Santa Fe last year was less than 60% of the 10-year average. The city measured only 8 inches in snowmelt and rainfall in the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed.
“That 8 inches that we measured in 2020 was the least that we’ve seen since we have been measuring rainfall at that location,” Water Division Director Jesse Roach told city councilors. The city began collecting these measurements in 2006.
But the city has been playing defense when it comes to saving water for decades, a move that is paying off now as residents face extended periods of drought.
Roach presented the annual water report to the City Council Wednesday, leading up to the resolution declaring extreme drought conditions. He gave a similar presentation on Tuesday at a Water Conservation Committee meeting at which members discussed how growth and development will impact water availability—plus a rosy endorsement of conservation projects the city is considering such as an assistance and leak-detection program to help educate low-income homeowners address leaks on their property.
The COVID-19 pandemic also impacted how we’ve used water in the last year. Commercial use was down 22% compared to 2019, the report says, while the number of gallons used per capita per day (GPCPD) went up from 87 GPCD in 2019 to 93 GPCD in 2020 due to an increase in outdoor watering as residents tried to save their parched gardens.
Residents use far less water per capita now than they did 20 years ago, thanks in large part, officials say, to the city’s aggressive water saving campaigns. In 1995, residents used 168 gallons per capita per day. The city’s water use overall has dropped significantly, even as the population has grown.
In the last few years the city has tried to avoid using its well fields whenever possible in order to reserve groundwater supplies for times of drought when there isn’t enough surface water to supply the city from reservoirs in the Santa Fe River Watershed and from the Buckman Direct Diversion on the Rio Grande.
This year, 2021, might be one of those years. Despite the drought, the city relied almost exclusively last year on its surface water resources. But because Santa Fe didn’t get much snow in the winter, the reservoir levels are now fairly low.
Ground water levels, on the other hand, have begun to recover in recent years from decades of past over use. The city added the Buckman Direct Diversion project to the mix in 2011, which allowed it to reduce its reliance on city wells. This year they will likely be brought back into greater action.
The Water Division usually creates an annual forecast about how much water will be available in April based on snow pack and historical data.
Such forecasts are fairly accurate in most years, but this year, it is already proving to be off due to the extremely dry conditions.
“Between April 1 and May 1 … the amount [of snowmelt] that showed up as flow in McClure [reservoir] was below what we expected as the minimum possible, based on historical analysis … a lot of that water disappeared. It sublimated, it went into soil moisture, and it did not show up in our reservoir,” said Roach.
Still, he says the city is doing well on water conservation and has a diverse set of water resources that can help back each other up in times of drought.
^^IN OTHER NEWS^^
Earlier this year the city took over the process of redeveloping the Midtown Campus after an agreement with a master developer fell through. On Wednesday, city staff gave a presentation to the council about which existing buildings might be demolished and which ones the city hopes to keep and restore as the rest of the campus is built out.
The Fogelson Library and the Garson studios are on the list of buildings the city plans to restore and keep.
A number of old prefab buildings are slated for demolition including Brother Ron’s Trailers and the Den. The buildings on this list have fallen into disrepair and do not offer much value in renovation, said Sam Burnett, a property maintenance manager for the city.
The city is deliberating on the fate of a number of other buildings, including much of the campus’ existing housing. Burnett listed Kennedy Hall, King Hall, La Salle Hall and St. Micheal Hall—all dorm buildings—as well as nearby apartments in a list for a second phase of demolition. This phase would likely not occur for several years, after redevelopment begins.
The economic impacts of the pandemic might make it even more difficult to access affordable housing through programs paid for by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In an update on the program Wednesday, Santa Fe Affordable Housing Director Alexandra Ladd said because incomes declined during the pandemic, the area median income is lower now than it was a year ago.
This number is used to determine whether someone is eligible for housing support through HUD programs. A person who came in at the upper income limit for housing assistance last year and who did not get laid off during the pandemic might no longer be eligible for assistance programs because the area median income has dropped below what they earn. However, fair market rents did not change and area median home prices went up during the pandemic, said Ladd.
Meanwhile, interest rates went down, increasing an individual’s purchasing power and also increasing the amount a person involved in the city’s mortgage assistance program would have to pay for a house, even if their income didn’t change.
In response, the city is raising the limit on the amount it can offer for down payment assistance from $20,000 to $30,000.
Councilor Signe Lindell announced she plans to introduce a resolution at an upcoming council meeting that would require that future Chief of Police and Chief of Fire must live within 10 miles of the city. Mayor Alan Webber and Councilor Chris Rivera are co sponsors of the resolution.