Shallow River Blues

With the Colorado River in crisis, strategies shift for municipal water management

The Colorado River system is facing a historic drought crisis—a well-settled, if troubling fact.

On Aug. 16, the US Interior Department acknowledged the grim reality, announcing urgent actions to protect what water remains, including mandatory water cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

While our state isn’t facing any immediate cuts, the announcement raises questions: Will New Mexico’s allotment from the Colorado suffer down the line? And how is Santa Fe planning for a drier future?

City water managers figured Interior would take steps, but the department’s announcement serves as a reminder: Santa Fe must make the most of dwindling water supplies and collaborate with cities up and downstream.

The Colorado doesn’t flow through New Mexico, but the San Juan River—its tributary—does. It supplies water to the federal San Juan-Chama Project, which delivers water to the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and cities along the Rio Grande. (In Santa Fe, the water comes through the Buckman Direct Diversion and makes up roughly half the water the city uses each year.)

Santa Fe Water Division Director Jesse Roach says the city has been planning for potential shortages since 2015 and is working on a new drought-tracking tool with an attendant water-use reduction policy, plus the San Juan-Chama Return Flow Pipeline.

City and county officials have been developing the tool for over a year. It’s intended to gauge drought conditions and communicate them to the public, paving the way for water restrictions based on a zero-to-10 index.

Zero would mean water crisis; 10 would be ideal conditions. The metrics reflect surface water availability, the health of groundwater resources and overall drought levels in the county, Roach explains. It’s specific to local conditions, though—while drought on the Colorado would impact Santa Fe’s supply of San Juan-Chama Project water and the city’s resilience, the index wouldn’t reflect it.

The city’s Water Conservation Office will join with city and county committees to come up with restrictions corresponding to different drought levels. Once they define policy responses, they’ll be incorporated into city code.

As of February, the last time the group updated the numbers, the drought level was pegged at 6.7. For now, there are no mandatory restrictions.

Christine Chavez, the city’s water conservation manager, is still looking for ways to save water. Last spring, officials started a campaign encouraging native, xeric outdoor plantings that double as pollinators; and offering “water wise” businesses free marketing as an incentive.

“It’s getting harder and harder to save more with just conservation,” Roach says. “We don’t think we can conserve our way out of the potential supply reductions and demand increases.”

That’s where the proposed return flow pipeline comes in, diverting effluent back to the Rio Grande and creating a water credit that enables the Buckman Direct Diversion to extract an equivalent volume later.

A 2015 study explored future impacts to Santa Fe’s water supply, predicting shortages on the Colorado and Rio Grande. That led the city, county and other partners to develop a plan for the project, which William Schneider, the city’s water resource coordinator, calls the “nexus” of Santa Fe’s response to shortages in that it will make Colorado River water go two to three times further.

Roach hopes to see the pipeline in place in three to five years. Engineering design phases are underway (the city was recently awarded a $6 million grant from the federal government for design and construction) and officials are seeking permits.

The project has garnered significant opposition. Communities downstream from the city rely on the effluent for agriculture, ecosystems and cultural purposes; the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, the Interstate Stream Commission, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and the Bureau of Reclamation support the pipeline.

The new reality will require Santa Fe to continue conversations with Denver, Las Vegas, Nevada and other western cities, Roach says.

Aaron Derwingson, water projects director for The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program, says collaboration between the basin’s water users leads to solutions.

“The Colorado River system is much more than a giant plumbing network,” he tells SFR. “It’s a vast and interconnected system with fish and wildlife that are found nowhere else on the planet.”

Derwingson works closely with agricultural water users, many of whom are willing to make sacrifices for the basin’s health, but they worry it’ll be in vain if the whole system doesn’t follow suit.

“If the Upper Basin doesn’t see action from the Lower Basin, they can fairly ask, ‘What’s the point of us saving a bunch of water only for it to be used elsewhere?’” Derwingson says. “Everybody’s gotta walk through this door arm in arm.”

“Whether it’s municipal water restrictions, impacts at the grocery store or you can’t fish your favorite stream—no matter who you are or what you care about, the status quo is gonna be bad,” he says.

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