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Closer to Return Flow

Federal funding for San Juan-Chama Return Flow Project will bolster new city, county partnership

For a lot less money than the last big water project, Santa Fe’s faucets are in for a proverbial infusion.

But the water won’t originate from a new spring. Instead, the city took another step forward in leveraging an existing source: San Juan-Chama water that Santa Fe imports from the Colorado River.

On Wednesday, the governing body approved a partnership with Santa Fe County, moving ahead with the San Juan-Chama Return Flow Project. Following negotiations with the Board of County Commissioners, the agreement outlines the city and the county will both contribute money to the project, while also sharing the water profits.

The deal calls for the city to incur 93% of the costs while the county picks up the remaining 7% of the price tag for operation, maintenance and repairs associated with the project, though the contract specifies that the county’s financial responsibility to the project won’t exceed $2 million.

Jesse Roach, the city’s water division director, explains, using rounded numbers, the return flow project makes dollars and sense for Santa Feans. “The city paid $125 million to sort of access about 5,000 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama water.” Roach says, referring to the city’s portion of the high construction cost of the Buckman Direct Diversion, in which the county is also a partner. “And so now we’re talking about spending another, you know, $20 to $30 million to essentially double that.”

Santa Fe will also receive $6 million from the federal government to move forward on planning and construction through a grant from the Water Reclamation and Reuse Program. With the county’s $2 million, that leaves a gap of as much as $22 million.

The pipeline would carry water from the city treatment plant on Airport Road about 17 miles to be directly discharged into the Rio Grande. Today, that water flows into the Santa Fe River channel after it’s treated at the reclamation facility. Getting what’s known as “return flow credits” for sending it straight to the Rio Grande means the BDD would be permitted to draw more water upstream.

Efforts to improve the resiliency of the city’s water supply in the face of climate change, a primary motivation for pursuing the return flow project, can be traced back to at least 2015, when the city projected water supply and demand to develop adaptive strategies to prepare for climatic, human and other changes.

After working with the Bureau of Reclamation on a 2017 Santa Fe Reuse Feasibility Study, Roach tells SFR the city identified the pipeline project as an effective way to expand existing water supplies.

The city applied for this grant initially in 2019 but didn’t secure the funding. The federal bureau asked Santa Fe’s water department to resubmit the grant application two years later; in September the proposal was recommended for approval, all but securing the $6 million for the return flow project.

Roach explains that the county’s stake and the federal grant are just two of the many sources of funding the city has pursued. Other potential funding sources could come from green bonds, or money from large-scale developers hoping to build in Santa Fe that are required to bring water rights to the table before breaking ground.

Roach hopes to give would-be developers another option: “You can bring us [water] rights from the Middle Rio Grande or you can buy into this pipeline.” He says, “Essentially we then have developers servicing the debt we take to build the pipeline.”

William Schneider, water resources and conservation manager, adds that the city is looking to other grant opportunities to cover the rest of the project’s costs. He points to President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, currently slogging through Congress, as a promising source of more money for this work.

Schneider says, “This project is designed to fully utilize it’s San Juan-Chama water.” Schneider explains that, with the return flow project, Santa Fe can “emphasize our imported water and do our best to reserve the native water within the region for the benefit of all the stakeholders.”

He underscores the “value of this water to the community to address climate change impacts. It’s a resource of criticality for us, planning ahead 20, 40 years,” Schneider tells SFR.

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