Cover Stories

Water Wounds

Arroyos across Santa Fe, mistaken for natural arteries, signal a land transformed for the worse; ancient techniques could be the way out

In the shallow gully of the Arroyo de los Chamisos, late afternoon light illuminates the sandy soil and rocks lining the basin. The ditches’ short walls hide traces of other humans. The wind carries bird songs instead of revving car engines.

In this private canyon, nature controls what’s so close to the world of paved roads and roofed structures. Willows grow unmanicured, grasses poke from between the rocks, and leafy branches stretch over the wandering channel.

Another lone walker with a dog bouncing from one bush to the next passes with a silent nod. Ahead, a coyote stares over its shoulder before trotting up the berm, out of the wash. The weight of warm, dry air shunts any scent of water that’s supposed to flow through after storms.

Places for recreating, socializing and inhabiting, the arroyos of Santa Fe fill a different niche for everyone: sites for early-evening walks, spots for sharing a joint, camps for the unhoused. The presence of arroyos in the city is largely welcomed and unquestioned by their users.

Scientists see something else. “Arroyos are really scars—the remnants of poor landscape management,” Morika Hensley says of the channels that stripe the city. The expansion of the arroyo system emerged as a consequence, she explains, of livestock’s arrival via the railroad and, later, the paving of the land to make way for cars.

Hensley grew up in Santa Fe with a fondness for these natural corridors. Arroyos, just outside many of our doors, provided an accessible place for her to walk in nature and experience the beauty of the Southwest in her backyard.

Now, as the director of planning, education and restoration at the Santa Fe Watershed Association, Hensley recognizes arroyos as symptoms of the human forces that altered the landscape.

When these channels swell with water, the land they cut through loses moisture and the vital element rushes out of the city. It’s known as desertification, and it threatens to dry an already arid landscape, pushing out native plant species and depriving Santa Fe of a valuable resource: water.

Given the violent monsoons in this region, marked by short, heavy downpours, Santa Fe built stormwater systems generations ago that exploit arroyos to ship water out. With the incredible efficiency of these drainages, many long-term planners see water flowing down arroyos as an unacceptable resource loss.

Advocates of more sustainable water management argue that obstacles in the city’s procurement process—favoring “hard-engineering” designs—have exacerbated the drying and, in turn, transformed Santa Fe from the prairie grassland it once was and still ought to be.

As the pressure of water scarcity mounts in the Southwest and renewed calls for conservation vie for attention, an incremental shift is occurring in the city. Officials seek to balance concerns over protecting property with fears and consequences of further desertifying the surrounding landscape.

A return to ancient ways of thinking about water and recent changes to the city’s stormwater management are poised to help the community brace against the dangers of coming water shortages. If the positive changes gain wider application, successfully preserving the water that falls in the watershed, these scars may yet heal.

Land, water, people, animals

Hilario Romero grew up in a very different Santa Fe from Hensley in the 1950s. And for those with generational roots in this region, like Romero, the story of these water systems cannot be untangled from historical forces that shaped the city.

“The culture of arroyos, acequias, water, all of that—it has been ingrained in our brains, even those that don’t even realize it,” the former state historian and professor of New Mexico history says over a map of Santa Fe acequias from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Romero speaks of the acequia culture that demanded the collaboration, and often bickering, of mayordomos and parciantes.

Stanley Crawford, the noted Dixon, New Mexico-based novelist and garlic farmer, describes it this way: “Next to blood relationships, which rule the valley, come water relationships. The arteries of ditches and bloodlines cut across each other in patterns of astounding complexity.”

Many of the acequias have since been paved over, which led to the formation and deepening of new arroyos.

Aaron Kauffman walks in the Arroyos de los Pinos, which run perpendicular to Llano Street, next to La Farge Library. He points to signs of the land drying out: compacted soil, steeply eroded banks, deep-rooted plants.

“We are desertifying the landscape and arroyos are a good indication of that,” the hydrologist and founder of Southwest Urban Hydrology says.

Prior to the arrival of settlers, and the subsequent desertification, short-grass prairies dominated the landscape. Kauffman describes the scene as “park-like.” Grassy swales, without distinct channels, would have allowed water to flow across the land as a sheet, enabling more water to sink into the soil.

The arrival of the railroad in the 1800s enabled colonists from the Eastern United States to bring sheep and cattle that grazed on the grasses that would otherwise hold the soil in place. The loss of grass cover, alongside trampling by the livestock, induced widespread erosion in the form of gully formation, which created the vast system of arroyos that characterizes much of the Southwest.

Though the grazers have moved elsewhere, a new threat to the land has since built up.

“What I would say now, instead of overgrazing problems, it’s the impervious development,” Kauffman explains. “So it’s the roads, the streets, the parking lots, the rooftops, which essentially prevent water from entering the soil surface and so have to be directed somewhere.”

That water flowing into these natural channels, coming off the asphalt and metal roofing, has a higher velocity (think of a ball rolling on wooden floors versus carpet) which enables the water to strip more soil away.

Impervious surfaces prevent water from infiltrating into the ground, further drying out soils. The fast-moving water also struggles to soak into the dirt. During large rain events, stormwater creates potential for flooding, which prompted the development of drainage networks around the city that rely on, and deepen, these channels.

Humans are not entirely to blame.

“Arroyos can still be a natural phenomenon,” Kauffman says, adding that they sometimes form naturally after a large fire or in response to a drying climate. Though there’s a clear link between the modern arroyo system and poor land management decisions.

Erosion happens relatively quickly; recovery does not.

“Arroyos can take decades or two centuries to form,” Kauffman says. “They can take millennia to recover, to go back to a stable system.”

In their ever-shifting state today, arroyos in Santa Fe provide much more than just channels for water or walkers.

On his way to work at New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, Mark Oldknow sees a large number of people coming up out of Arroyo de los Chamisos, where they’ve camped for the night. Arroyos around the city offer shelter and a place to sleep uninterrupted.

Oldknow acknowledges the relative containment of arroyos helps those experiencing homelessness feel safer, but that can quickly change. Flash flooding of the river and arroyos presents serious risks to people living in these spaces, in addition to damaging their property.

“Every time that it rains, I go across the street to the river and I can spend the next week picking up stuff because somebody’s camp, someplace upstream, got washed away,” Oldknow says, emphasizing “every time.”

A shift in thinking

Ditch management has evolved over the decades as the dominating philosophy toward water has developed.

“Arroyos around Santa Fe are a good indication that we are effectively drying out the landscape,” says Kauffman. He acknowledges this is counterintuitive because we see water filling these channels. But it’s on a fast track to somewhere else.

That was exactly the intention of hard-engineering enthusiasts, who held that water was a nuisance—eroding soil, leading to property damage—and needed to be removed from urban centers as quickly as possible.

“In the 20th-century model, it was like, ‘Let’s get it out of here as quickly as you can,’” Melissa McDonald, the city’s river and watershed manager, tells SFR.

Alternatively, the 21st-century model is to slow the water and get it in the ground, says McDonald.

The old-school approach is more recognizable to the average observer through structures like cement culverts and banks reinforced by metal and rock gabions. These hard-infrastructure projects reinforce the channeling, rather than promoting the infiltration of water. Experts say the latter is a much more sustainable approach to stormwater management.

Just as flooding presents risks to people seeking shelter in riverbeds and arroyos, the stormwater also poses risks to property. The city sought to minimize the damage through the construction of hardened surfaces like cement and rock to control the flow of water and stabilize channels.

But those techniques have worsened desertification, advocates of low-impact water management say. Kauffman points to the cement culvert west of Llano Street that speeds up water, enabling it to more readily pick up sediment and erode the bottom of the Arroyo de los Pinos.

Tricks to slow water down have been given short shrift.

“It’s been treated like a highway project,” Steve Vrooman, president of Keystone Restoration Ecology, says of work done on the Santa Fe River near Siler Road. The river, which saw renovations beginning in 2008, is not technically an arroyo, but it presents many of the same challenges.

The problem is procurement, Vrooman explains. City projects go to firms that typically favor large-scale, engineered systems to control water flow. This has left out contractors who would prefer to build loose, lower-impact rock structures—work that Vrooman and Kauffman practice.

McDonald says the city awards projects based on the needs of the system and the qualifications of the firm. The City of Santa Fe follows the state’s procurement code, and requests for proposals often go to the lowest bidder.

“There’s times where we use a more conventional engineering. Usually when we do the conventional engineering, it’s in areas where we don’t have a lot of space and we have a lot of homes nearby,” McDonald says.

She points out that hard infrastructure is necessary to prevent severe erosion where buildings stand during large storm events.

The growing tension over what model best suits the city’s needs reflects the slow shift from practices that defined the 20th century to those that scientists like Vrooman and Kauffman hope to see more prominently used.

“We’re still having, 20 years later, the argument of natural channel design versus classic engineering and why can’t we integrate them,” Vrooman says. “It’s not getting fixed here, or anywhere else. It’s not Santa Fe’s fault in particular.”

Vrooman concedes hindsight is 20/20 and acknowledges a consensus: Water is dynamic and it’s very difficult to control.

What water means

Kauffman points to a clustering of rocks shaped like a crescent moon—cobbled together intentionally—which most might not notice if the architect himself wasn’t pointing it out. The semi-circle of stones laid in the ground is known as a “media luna” structure, and it works to fan out and slow down the upstream water, coming from a channel, to minimize its erosive effects.

This technique, among others, is one practice that Kauffman and his fellow natural channel designers employ to work with the landscape of arroyos rather than force a shape onto them. Other practices, such as Zuni bowls and one-rock dams, gained prominence as scientists looked to address arroyo health.

Bill Zeedyk, founder of Zeedyk Ecological Consulting, learned of Zuni bowls while working with the Northern New Mexico Pueblo. The parallels between Indigenous agricultural practices and these loose rock designs originate from the idea that “every little bit of water counts.”

Beata Tsosie-Peña, program coordinator for Tewa Women United, says that “erosion control is one piece of it; there are multiple benefits to slowing down water as far as recharging the landscape.”

These structures require little more than stones and dirt, but Tsosie-Peña explains that plants are the true remedy for erosion. “You can build all the dams and berms and soils you want, but if you don’t have plantings it’s not going to be effective,” she says.

Romero, the professor and historian, agrees, noting natural channel design follows the same principals of the original stewards of Northern New Mexico.

Since the city’s approach has begun to incorporate low-impact erosion control projects, McDonald says that softer philosophies, in the form of green infrastructure, have become more of a priority in the last few years as part of the city’s 2018 Stormwater Management Strategic Plan.

Rain gardens are another strategy: pool-shaped holes, lined with rocks and plants, that fill when rains come and allow the water to sink into the ground.

For scientists losing sleep over future water shortages, the overlap of desertification and the coming crisis reflects the messy web of relationships that define the natural environment. The ongoing drought underlines the need to capture every drop of water, and the shifting climate reinforces the urgency for more resilient and sustainable urban environments that reflect heat and preserve moisture.

Though it’s not just future challenges that catchment strategies are poised to address.

Tsosie-Peña explains that mushrooms can be used to remediate water runoff from roads, carrying with it petroleum products and sediment. “You can grow mushroom bricks and bury them in the soil,” Tsosie-Peña explains of how these living filters work in conjunction with rain gardens to help clean stormwater.

“I don’t want a chicken in every pot, I want a rain garden in everybody’s yard,” quips Andy Otto, executive director of Santa Fe Watershed Association. “We can put these things in everywhere, and the more we do the better off we are on recharging our aquifer.”

While he considers himself an optimist, Otto explains that the Santa Fe Watershed, an area of 182,400 acres, receives an average of 12 inches of water a year. This total volume of rain (an estimated 59 billion gallons) dwarfs the amount of water the city consumes (just under 3 billion gallons a year.)

“We have more than enough water falling on our watershed that could be used now,” he says. “Part of the reason we don’t use it is because so much of it runs off into the Rio Grande.”

William Schneider, the city’s water resource coordinator, explains aquifer recharge is complicated and difficult to measure. He says the jury’s out on how much these techniques, which capture and sink stormwater into the ground, actually contribute to recharging the aquifer, but he acknowledges the need to address future water shortages.

Initiatives like the Santa Fe Watershed Association’s Adopt an Arroyo program push arroyo health and sustainable land practices forward, but the increasing pressures of the drought and climate change demand that stormwater be factored into decisions about resources.

With the rapid continued development around Santa Fe, more impermeable surfaces means more stormwater runoff. And given the complexity of relationships between land and water and people in Santa Fe, the impact of these decisions will affect everyone.

On the linking of these waterways, Hensley, of the watershed association, reflects: “The arroyos are a very visceral representation of how we are all connected through water in this watershed.”

With an arroyo in so many backyards—coupling all reaches of the city—efforts to stop the drying of land help remind Santa Fe of what water means.

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