CHROMO, COLORADO — A gray blanket mutes the normally green, vibrant mountains of southern Colorado where the Navajo River carves a path just miles from the New Mexico border. The suffocating smoke from a string of raging forest fires provides the most pressing evidence that the region’s climate is changing.
A less visible, yet similarly immediate threat lies beneath the surface of the Oso Diversion Dam, 10 minutes up a dirt road parallel to the Navajo River. That’s where some of Santa Fe’s water comes from, diverted through pipes, across the border and, eventually, winding up in the Rio Grande.
Water in the tributaries of the Colorado River Basin travels up to 28 miles, through a series of tunnels before reaching the Azotea Outlet, where it flows down Willow Creek into Heron Reservoir.
Together, the city and county of Santa Fe annually purchase 5,605 acre-feet of this San Juan-Chama Project water, but given the recently diminishing flows it’s been a number of years since Santa Fe actually received the agreed-upon amount.
Six of the past eight years have seen shortages in San Juan-Chama water New Mexico can use, ranging from 96% of the original allocation one year to 66%, which comes to 3,700 acre-feet for the city and county, in 2021.
Those shortages, driven by the ruinous tangle of drought and climate change, are a harbinger of what’s likely to come.
The reduced flows have prompted municipalities across the Southwest to react, some more aggressively than others. Santa Fe, largely seen as a leader in water conservation and planning efforts, found the energy to launch another significant project to take full advantage of its San Juan-Chama water, after completing an expensive diversion project to pipe the Rio Grande into city homes just over a decade ago.
As it stands on paper, the San Juan-Chama Return Flow Pipeline would divert the city’s effluent back to the Rio Grande, enabling the Buckman Direct Diversion to extract an equivalent volume for later use. Still in the planning phase, the project faces several hurdles—and significant disagreement over its design.
Communities on the Santa Fe River, downstream from the city—and the wastewater treatment facility—rely on the effluent for agriculture and sustaining ecosystems. Many balk at the idea that a water source, which has been depleted over time, would be further endangered by the project. That leaves them questioning the need for the pipeline.
Like the City of Santa Fe, those communities are feeling the intersecting pressures of climate change and drought on their livelihood.
The southern reaches of the upper Colorado River Basin supply the San Juan-Chama Project. They’ll probably see the largest impacts of the pipeline project, says Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist with Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute.
According to his preliminary research, since 2000, the basin as a whole has seen a flow reduction of roughly 20%, but the San Juan River has dropped 30%.
“Those deserts just to the south of the San Juan Mountains are going to move north and they’re going to move north because the storms that might historically carry precipitation to that area will go north,” Udall tells SFR.
Udall has studied the impact of reduced precipitation on expanding deserts, which result in drier soils that further reduce flows. In self-reinforcing cycles, drier soils also create more dust, which falls on snow and more readily absorbs the sun’s heat. The dust on snow speeds up melting and leads to earlier runoffs, which results in less water available during the summer months.
Human activity, Udall notes, is the primary culprit for the Colorado River Basin’s flow reductions.
“Clearly at least half of the flow reduction is due to humans and maybe even more,” Udall says. “We don’t have the scientific muscle to determine if the whole flow decline is due to humans.”
The West’s uncertain water future makes David Gutzler anxious. The professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of New Mexico says the ongoing drought, compounded by the aridification of climate change, means the region will experience more shortages—to what extent is murky, Gutzler says.
The current water shortage spans the last two decades, which have marked the driest period in the last 1,200 years, leaving the majority of New Mexico gripped in extreme or exceptional drought conditions.
Based on the tree ring record, which maps the scope and length of past droughts, Gutzler’s confident in one thing: “Horrible droughts have happened and they’ve all ended. This one will end but I don’t expect us to, sort of, return to what people would regard as normal conditions.”
To contend with the uncertainty, municipalities have crafted solutions to strengthen their water futures.
Eleven years ago, the Santa Fe city and county governments unveiled the Buckman Direct Diversion, a $225 million facility that pipes water from the Rio Grande to homes and businesses across the region, treating up to 8,730 acre-feet per year.
The BDD, as it’s colloquially known, presented a new way for officials to take advantage of allocations from the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which guaranteed water rights to seven states in the river’s basin. For beneficiaries like Santa Fe and Albuquerque, hundreds of miles from the Colorado River, accessing those water rights proved difficult.
A half century later, the San Juan-Chama project, a series of diversions and tunnels connecting tributaries of the Colorado River to the Rio Grande, provided direct access.
For inhabitants along the Rio Grande, the water flowed easily after that. But for the City of Santa Fe, roughly 12 miles away from the river, it wasn’t until a pipeline was constructed that direct access was possible.
Rick Carpenter, the BDD facilities manager, tells SFR before the 2011 pipeline, the city and county pumped groundwater from the Buckman Well Field as a way of indirectly accessing their allocated San Juan-Chama water.
That practice depleted the wells, and the Rio Grande didn’t adequately recharge them. The BDD project—which supplied 56% of Santa Fe’s water in 2021—shifted how much groundwater came from the Buckman wells. Carpenter says those wells have since recovered from that overreliance.
The BDD facility can process 15 million gallons per day; if operated year round at this volume the facility would process almost double the 8,730 acre-feet diverted from the Rio Grande. If the pipeline moves forward and more water is pulled from the Rio Grande using the return credits, Carpenter says his facility will easily be able to handle the increase.
“The challenge, of course, is that by increasing our reliance on Colorado River water, we necessarily also increase our vulnerability to shortages in the Colorado River system,” counters Gutzler.
Jesse Roach, the city’s Water Division director, is intimately familiar with the conundrum. Before joining the city Roach helped write the 2015 Santa Fe Basin Study, which assessed the impact of climate change on Santa Fe’s water supply and found that, when paired with the uncertainty of growth in the city, potential shortages could range from 3,000 to 15,000 acre-feet per year by 2070.
Even with the BDD, the wells and the reservoirs on the Santa Fe River contributing to the water supply, those predicted shortages persist and are the reason officials cite for the project’s necessity.
In summarizing Santa Fe’s water legacy, officials often point to one statistic: Since 1995 the population of the City of Santa Fe has increased by 25%, but the total amount of water consumed has decreased by 33%. They say their conservation efforts have paid off.
Mayor Alan Webber attributes those efforts to decisive action from previous leaders, “whether it was in the pricing of water in order to encourage outstanding efforts of water conservation, or the Buckman Direct Diversion, in order to come up with another water source,” he tells SFR.
“There are no other sources of water and so it makes great sense for us to get ahead of the curve before we’re in this 2030 situation where we have to turn off the taps or ration water,” says Marcos Martinez, a senior assistant city attorney for Santa Fe. The 2030 scenario comes from the basin study, which concluded that shortages could occur within the next decade if no actions are taken to strengthen the supply.
From a legal perspective, the water the city hopes to divert from the wastewater facility back to the Rio Grande comes from the San Juan-Chama Project. That imported water is fully consumable, according to the details of a 1976 interstate agreement. That means every acre-foot of water the city returns to the Rio Grande could be eligible for an equal acre-foot return flow credit.
The pipeline’s advance hinges on approval from the Office of the State Engineer, which could take anywhere from six months to two years, depending on whether a protest against the city’s application is filed.
Also pending is the Bureau of Reclamation’s evaluation of the project, which will culminate in either an “environmental assessment,” or a more rigorous “environment impact statement.”
“We have evaluated the project proposal and right now with the information we have, we have determined it is at the level of an Environmental Assessment,” writes Mary Carlson, a spokeswoman for the bureau’s regional office.
But Carlson notes that the bureau needs to assess more data to determine whether the proposal rises to the level of an environmental impact statement. That decision, Carlson writes, is based on “the potential impact to resources from the project proposal, which consists of infrastructure that needs to be constructed and changes to water flows.”
The draft environmental assessment was slated to be released this February, but hold-ups at the federal level have slowed down the process. Carlson projects the document, which the public can review and comment on, will be released late this summer.
For Tricia Snyder, a Rio Grande campaigner with the nonprofit WildEarth Guardians, the effluent’s quality and the impact it would have on the Rio Grande is among the environmental concerns.
Snyder and a number of downstream residents expressed concerns over the quality of the effluent coming from the Paseo Real treatment facility, which Snyder says could be an issue in the context of reduced flows on the Rio Grande.
“If you’re putting wastewater that is not up to water-quality standards in a lower river, you’re creating more of a water-quality issue than you would if there was more water in the river,” Snyder says.
She also points to impacts on nonhuman communities and their ecosystems.
Roach says the Paseo Real facility treats wastewater according to state and federal standards necessary to discharge into the Santa Fe River. He adds that the volume of effluent diverted to the Rio Grande would come to 1% of the total flow even when the river is low, “so it’s getting hugely diluted.”
Another downstream user, Darrin Muenzberg, says anything less than an environmental impact statement won’t do justice to the potential impacts the diversion would have on the communities downstream from Santa Fe.
“That limits the public comment period and limits the depth to which they have to explore it,” Muenzberg says of the environmental assessment.
Muenzberg’s family has lived in La Bajada for almost 300 years. He says the community served as Santa Fe’s “bread basket” for centuries.
“Never has our dependence on the river…, being the center of our lives, our spiritual lives, economic livelihood, agricultural lives, never has that been a detrimental dependence on the wastewater treatment plant until Santa Fe starts expanding and growing and interfering with the course of that natural stream,” Muenzberg tells SFR.
He adds that the water rights allocated to the city early in the 18th century might predate those granted to downstream communities such as La Bajada, La Cienega and La Cieneguilla, but it was allocated based on the population of Santa Fe at the time.
Webber doesn’t discount the inherent prioritization of urban water users over more rural communities downstream.
“We have a responsibility to the people who live in Santa Fe to make sure that their water future is safe and secure. At the same time, we want to be good neighbors,” he says.
Pointing to the return flow project, and its controversy, Webber acknowledges the urgency of water scarcity in the Southwest and the need to focus on conservation efforts.
As the city prepares to move forward with the planning and design of the pipeline, advocates ask for careful consideration.
Gov. Phillip Quintana of the Pueblo of Cochiti tells SFR he owes it to future children to protect the land which spans the Rio Grande, where the effluent would be discharged. He holds that the proposed diversion is detrimental to all the downstream users, including the landscape around the Santa Fe River, which possesses a living significance to the pueblo.
“We’re trying to show that we are doing our best to take care of the land,” Quintana says.
Jayson Romero, the natural resources director with the Pueblo of Cochiti, says water from the Santa Fe River makes it to the Rio Grande, and “if [the pipeline] is implemented, our ways of life, just, they disappear.”
“Our words have not been taken into consideration, it is what it is, the project is still moving forward. There is no tribal consultation that the city has in place,” says Romero.
Quintana views the lack of consultation from the city similarly.
“They know that we’ll be in opposition of it, see? And it will slow down their efforts, see?” Quintana says, referring to the city. “They don’t put us in the equation or they don’t put us in the consultation because they know we’ll say, ‘No.’”
A coalition representing stakeholders, organizations and community members downstream addressed a letter to Webber and city councilors requesting sufficient public input ahead of the planning process.
The pipeline coalition hopes to assess how much of the water from the wastewater treatment facility flows down the Santa Fe River and returns to the Rio Grande now. The water that travels back to the river, the coalition supposes, could be prospective return flow credits to take more water from the Rio Grande.
Roach penned a memo last August, outlining why that plan wouldn’t work, claiming there are multiple reasons unconsumed San Juan-Chama water from the lower Santa Fe River could not be leveraged for increased diversions at the BDD. Those include the barriers between the Santa Fe River and the Rio Grande, which include the Cochiti Dam and agricultural diversions, and hydrological losses, namely seepage and evaporation.
Alonzo Gallegos is already familiar with the impacts of water shortage.
Gallegos, the chairman of the La Bajada Community Ditch and Mutual Domestic Water Association, remembers when he irrigated an organic farm of more than 40 acres, providing vegetables to restaurants and farmers markets across New Mexico.
But that changed in 2004, Gallegos says, when reduced flows in the Santa Fe River forced him to largely abandon his commercial farming operation and switch to growing grain, which requires less water and can supply a flock of roughly 50 sheep he now keeps on his La Bajada property.
Gallegos attributes water scarcity to the reduced flow from the wastewater treatment facility. Also below the facility are beaver dams that are “able to block it completely—and for it to get to us, we’re probably about six, seven miles down the stream as the crow flies, and then plus evapotranspiration from the riparian area, a lot of it’s lost,” Gallegos tells SFR.
Standing beside the stream next to his property, with a healthy flow in early May supplied by the Santa Fe River effluent, Gallegos mulls the ditch’s future if the pipeline reduces discharge by up to 50%. How will he and his neighbors sustain their traditional agricultural practices with further diminished water levels?
Prior to the drying of the Santa Fe River, downstream residents received pristine runoff from the mountains, Gallegos says, but as the city grew, it required more water from the Santa Fe watershed. This prompted the city to acquire a discharge permit to release effluent at the wastewater plant, which became the source of downstream user’s water.
“We became dependent on that effluent ever since,” Gallegos says.
Gallegos’ property does not fall within the 100 acres of agricultural land on the Santa Fe River that the city is required to supply, but he depends on that water to support his livelihood.
The City’s Water Division estimates the cost of the pipeline project, which currently sits at $35 million, could go up as the cost of materials increases with inflation.
At the Reclamation Bureau’s recommendation, the city received $6 million in federal grant funding by participating in the Water Reclamation and Reuse Program. The remaining four fifths to fund the pipeline could come from the city Water Division’s coffers.
June 2020 figures from the city’s most recent audit show the division has $55.4 million in cash reserves and $42.5 million in outstanding debt. Along with several other capital projects, including dam rebuilds for McClure and Nichols reservoirs, the return flow project is expected to decrease cash reserves and increase debt.
The scarcity of water in regions like the Southwest leads to drier soils and vegetables, which results in a more intense wildfire season. Taken together, the two threats reflect another water-related consequence specific to Santa Fe: availability of housing.
Developers looking to build in Santa Fe must bring the water rights based on the dimensions of the new residences. This requirement finds builders purchasing water rights along the Rio Grande, often from farmers, which allow the city to extract more water from the Buckman wells.
Roach says the return flow pipeline would enable the city to stop this practice and instead give developers a chance to invest in the project and obtain credits for more units. (He also notes that the wastewater treatment facility stands hundreds of feet higher in elevation than the Rio Grande, so the pipeline could be used to produce hydroelectricity.)
Daniel Werwath, executive director of the Santa Fe Community Housing Trust, says the debate around housing and water isn’t nuanced. He explains the crippling need for more homes in Santa Fe is complicated by the reality that not all users consume equal amounts of water.
Werwath points to the loud protests over the construction of apartment complexes, “while quietly, mansions are built that gobble tons of water.” He notes that the substantial resources used to water gardens in the summer months doesn’t receive the same staunch opposition many have to multi-unit developments that can be built more efficiently.
“Saying water is the reason we can’t build affordable housing…it’s just a maddening conversation to be involved in,” Werwath tells SFR.
Back downstream on the Santa Fe River, where development and affordable housing seem like distant issues compared to the dwindling ditches that sustain Quintana and his neighbors, he expresses the same anxious uncertainty over the region’s water future as Gutzler, the UNM climate scientist.
Like the city, these downstream residents are aware of the coming impacts of sustained drought and climate change. And like the city, they are trying to prepare for what’s to come.
Quintana says there’s a misconception of what he is trying to achieve by advocating for the Santa Fe River. His goal is “to protect our waters, our lands and we need everybody to be on board with that…We’re still trying to make it flow.”
This story was produced with support from The Water Desk’s New Mexico and Rio Grande Journalism Project.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated the volume of water shortages Santa Fe could face in the future. Those numbers have been corrected.
Editor’s note: The story has been updated to accurately reflect the population growth since 1995 and where the city can extract water upon receiving water rights from developers.