Despite what the recent, welcome spats of rain might suggest, Santa Fe remains in drought.
In 2020, the total recorded precipitation in the city was less than 60% of the 10-year average, and climate models predict that prolonged periods of drought will likely become more severe.
With construction sites for apartment buildings popping up all over town and water use restrictions in effect, it’s easy to wonder if the hundreds of new residents who move into these developments will put a strain on the city’s precious water supply.
In the short term, says Jesse Roach, director of the city’s Water Division, the answer is no.
“We have enough water. Right now, we’re doing fine,” Roach tells SFR.
Requirements for developers to supply their own water rights and the city’s proactive water-saving measures mean the last year’s construction boom poses no threat to the current water supply.
But zoom the lens a few decades into the future, and you’ll see a different, more complicated picture.
Studies conducted by the Water Division predict the effects of climate change and continued growth could cause significant problems, even including water shortages as early as 2060 if water use patterns stay the same.
The city’s current methods of offsetting the water use of construction by requiring large-scale developers to buy water rights from farmers downstream on the Rio Grande could also raise ethical concerns about equitable access to water.
Roach is looking to the construction of a return flow pipeline, which would take treated effluent from the city’s wastewater treatment plant and pump it back up to the Rio Grande at the Buckman Direct Diversion, as the most important solution to achieve sustainable growth.
The city’s total yearly water use dropped from a peak of 13,000 acre-feet in 1995 to 9,000 acre-feet in 2020, despite significant population growth.
During that time, the city also built the Buckman Direct Diversion and water treatment plant, allowing it to take water delivered over the Continental Divide from the San Juan/Chama project to the Rio Grande. This water would be used in addition to surface water from the reservoirs above the Santa Fe River and pumped groundwater from the city wells and Buckman well field.
This arrangement allowed the city to rely mostly on surface water and rest its wells. Groundwater levels are rising as a result, placing Santa Fe in a better position during periods of drought, says Roach, noting that the city has a permit to draw a maximum of 10,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Buckman wells alone.
It also allows the city to offset the impact of new development.
Wells can negatively impact nearby rivers by sucking up water that would otherwise flow from an underground aquifer into the river. New Mexico water law requires the city to acquire water rights from farmers downstream to offset the impact of additional well-pumping on the Rio Grande.
Developers must purchase water rights and transfer them into the city’s “water bank” before getting a building permit, allowing Santa Fe officials to pump more water from wells.
The requirement creates an extra hurdle for developers and a competitive market for people buying and selling water rights and third parties who often act as middlemen between farmers and developers.
Kyle Harwood, an attorney who specializes in water issues, says the market for water rights is so tight that developers are paying a premium to get their hands on the documents that will allow them to move forward with proposed projects and add new rights to the city’s “water bank.”
“We’ve got developers going under contract and closing six months or a year ahead of when they actually need the rights, because they’re terrified there’s not going to be any when they need them,” Harwood tells SFR.
Smaller-scale home builders, on the other hand, can simply pay a fee to the city.
In the long run, this scheme is not sustainable because it could cause the city to rely too heavily on its wells for regular use, leaving no safety net for times of severe shortage, says Roach.
The city has also not conducted any analysis of how buying up agricultural water rights could impact small communities downstream.
That’s part of the reason the city is keen on moving forward with the plan to build a pipeline from the wastewater treatment plant south of Santa Fe to return treated effluent to the Rio Grande in exchange for “return flow credits,” says Roach. The credits would allow Santa Fe to draw more water out of the river.
However, the plan has met resistance from many locals. Paige Grant, a hydrologist and the founder of the Santa Fe Watershed Association, worries that reusing wastewater will have a negative impact on farming communities along the lower half of the Santa Fe River.
Grant writes in a May 18 letter to city councilors that the credits would only “satisfy a theoretical demand.”
The city counters that it would only return the portion of wastewater to the Rio Grande that is equivalent to the amount of water that was diverted—a cheaper option than others considered.
“With the return flow pipeline, we will be able to stretch our San Juan/Chama water...rights further,” says Roach. “And so there’s the possibility that we could change the paradigm away from, ‘OK, if you want to build here, you have to bring us water rights so that we can pump more out of the Buckman’s well field’ to ‘OK, if you want to build here, you’re going to pay us for the water that we are creating with the return flow pipeline.’”
Instead of getting water rights from farmers downstream, the city could consider requiring developers to help pay off the bond for the new pipeline.
On May 18, the city began the NEPA scoping process and submitted an application for return flow credits to the Office of the State Engineer.
In addition, city officials are considering revamping green building codes to make them applicable to new apartment buildings. The codes only apply to new single family homes as of now, and require buildings to meet energy and water standards 30% more efficient than the status quo.
City Sustainability Planner Neal Denton says he expects to make the change in early 2022.
“The usage of the water within that facility is up to the person who lives there, but what we can do is make the home more efficient,” Denton says. “That will make a difference.”