Let It Flow

There’s hope this could be a better summer for the Santa Fe River

You can hear it.

The Santa Fe River has been flowing loudly these last few weeks and officials say we can expect more water to run through town than we have seen in recent years thanks in large part to 2023′s wet start.

“You will see more flow than we have seen in the last few years and that’s because the channel is more saturated,” says Alan Hook, Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Program manager and water resources coordinator.

Each year, city officials estimate the amount of runoff the river will receive using measurements from snowpack in the mountains above the city, weather forecasts and other information. This year, officials expect runoff will be well above the median for the last 30 years.

Yet, the water rushing through town is not untamed runoff from the mountains, but part of a plumbing system that also supplies local residents with a sizable share of the water that comes out of faucets across town. And the estimate by city officials is part of an important math equation that decides just how much water the city releases into the Santa Fe River from its two reservoirs in the mountains to the east.

The reservoirs—the Nichols and McClure—feed into a water treatment facility on Canyon Road. But city ordinance also commits officials to provide water from those reservoirs to keep the Santa Fe River flowing, at least under certain conditions.

When the amount of runoff from the snowpack measures between 75% and 100% of the historical average, the city must provide 1,000 acre feet to the river—that is, enough water to cover 1,000 acres of land with a foot of water.

If there’s less snowpack and it yields less water, the river gets less water, too. If runoff only amounts to 55% of the historical average, for example, the city may only provide 550 acre feet from the reservoirs.

After all the snow at the start of the year, the city now plans to put a full 1,000 acre feet into the river.

A plan drafted by Santa Fe officials this month calls for the city to ease that water into the river over the coming months, with higher flows than the river has seen during recent summers.

“It’s not as much benefit to the river channel and the vegetation to release one big slug of water. It’s better to release less water over a longer period,” Hook tells SFR.

Officials expect the water to literally go further thanks to factors including a strong monsoon that primed the soil in the river channel, ensuring water doesn’t saturate into the ground quite as quickly.

Part of the reason for the river roaring now, though, is that reservoirs are high enough that the city might not be able to capture all the water it could from the height of spring runoff around mid-May, Hook says. So, current plans anticipate releasing water from the reservoirs to keep Nichols around 65% to 70% full, with enough room for the water that will come from snowmelt later this spring as temperatures rise.

Morika Vorenberg Hensley, executive director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association, says the flows bolster efforts to improve the river ecosystem. For the last several years, the group Rio Grande Return has been planting willows and cottonwoods along the river—a project Hensley says can make the river more resilient in the face of climate change and provide more green space for residents.

“This soaking they’re getting from the river flow is really giving them an amazing chance to survive and in some ways it mimics the more natural ways cottonwoods and willows reproduce,” says Hensley.

Meanwhile, the water recharges groundwater supplies along the river, Hensley adds.

It’s all a reminder that while Northern New Mexico is in for less predictable winters and monsoon seasons as the climate changes, the city can put the water it gets to smarter use.

“Planning always for the next storm event, to hold moisture in the soil, is really important,” Hensley says.

And then there’s the beauty of it all—water in the desert.

“Just seeing it flow—there’s something so soothing and healing about witnessing that,” Hensley says.

The more consistent flow of water Santa Fe sees today comes after decades of battles.

A subsidiary of PNM owned the water treatment facility on Canyon Road, for example, and planned in the late 20th century to take all the spring runoff.

Acequia associations fought the company in court and won. The city took over the water system in 1999 and following years of advocacy by local residents, the City Council approved an ordinance about a decade ago guaranteeing a reliable flow of water—depending on conditions in the mountains upstream.

The fight over how far and how high the Santa Fe River can flow continues.

Further down the river, the city and county are planning a 17-mile pipeline to carry water from a wastewater treatment plant on Airport Road and pump it into the Rio Grande.

By putting treated effluent from the city into the Rio Grande, the city can get what’s called a “return flow credit” and use that credit to draw more water upstream.

But the water that officials want to put in the Rio Grande currently flows into the Lower Santa Fe River. That means the pipeline will ultimately mean less water for the Santa Fe River south of the city.

WildEarth Guardians lodged a formal protest over the plan with the Office of the State Engineer, arguing it would negatively impact the health of the river ecosystem and downstream water users.

The city and WildEarth Guardians announced a settlement with the group April 14 that would set minimum monthly flows below the reclamation facility. The city also agreed to make improvements to the riverside to boost water quality and the riparian habitat.

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