New Life for the Santa Fe River

Date February 28, 2008 at 11:00 PM


Categories Health & Beauty


Update September 2008: THE RIVER WILL FLOW"€¦

Santa Fe River is already flowing! Starting Labor Day weekend, the City Water Division allowed water to "flow through" the reservoirs and into the river channel. The flow out of the reservoirs will be roughly pegged to the natural rate of flow coming into the upper reservoir (McClure). Initial flows will be about 2cfs, which is a low rate of flow but this is a good thing. It's is an example of "less is more," since the low flow can be sustained for a longer period of time. How long? The City Water Division will review the flows each week, and anticipates keeping the river flowing for the next few months. and possibly to the end of the year. The goal is to lower the overall level of the reservoirs to 50% of capacity so there will be room for snow melt next Spring.


RIPARIAN BIRD WALK -- Saturday September 27, 8:00am at Griego Park. Join local birder, Deanna Einspar, on a bird ramble along the river. Come meet some of our fall migrants and resident birds. Beginners welcome.

WATERSHED HIKES -- The Watershed Hikes scheduled for Sept 13 and Oct. 11 are already filled and already have long waiting lists. A November hike is possible (stay-tuned) and we will do what we can to schedule more watershed hikes next summer.

PLANTING DAYS will be scheduled in October at San Ysidro Park at Agua Fria; details to be announced soon.

For more information, please visit the Santa Fe Watershed website at -

As we all know, Santa Fe has multiple charms. It's on everybody's top 10 tourist destinations in the U.S., resulting in a million visitors a year. Outside magazine has called it the best place to live in the Southwest and one of the 30 best in the country. It's the nation's third largest art market, just behind New York and Los Angeles, with 300 galleries and dealers. It has a world-class outdoor opera. And at age 400, Santa Fe is the nation's second oldest city - and maybe even older than Jamestown, depending on how you count.

It has just about everything: mild dry climate, spectacular scenery, few bugs because of the 7,000 foot altitude, unique adobe architecture, three cultures (Native American, Hispanic, Anglo) with multiple museums for each and a dramatic frontier history.

"What ain't we got?"€ to quote a song from "South Pacific."€ "You know damn well!"€ Or at least you should. It's a river.

Oh, maps show a river cutting right through town, all right, two blocks from our famous Plaza. But the Santa Fe River is a river in name only. It doesn't have any water in it.

Things are so serious that the conservation group American Rivers last year designated it the most endangered waterway in the country.

The 46-mile-long Santa Fe River is dry - except briefly in the spring from snow melt -- because the city's growing need for water in the arid high desert has drained it. And while that was going on, nobody objected, or if they did, the objections were not heeded.

By now, the city is finally and understandably embarrassed. Santa Fe was originally built where it is because a river ran through it, providing water for crops and settlements. Think of the American cities that are famous for the riparian banks they sit upon: Cincinnati and the Ohio, Boston and the Charles, Minneapolis and the Mississippi, New York and the Hudson. Santa Fe has vowed, sort of, to refloat its river.

The question is how?

As a city, Santa Fe uses about 10 million gallons of water a day, and now gets 40 percent of it from two big reservoirs in the eastern mountains and the rest from deep wells inside the city and to the north. The danger of drought in this area is constant. Average precipitation is a mere 11 inches. And complicated water laws involving neighboring states and even Mexico forbid the city from building any more reservoirs.

Diverting that precious water for aesthetic improvement, rather than for human and commercial use, seems foolish to some developers and politicians. The Santa Fe Watershed Association is trying to change their minds.

It wants the city to release enough water from the reservoirs to create a modest year-round trickle - probably only a few inches -- in the now dry, weed-choked riverbed. Exactly how much that will take has to be determined by experts. David Groenfeldt, executive director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association, has one specific wish: "I want fish in the river. Not big fish, but little native cutthroat trout, at least where the river pools."€

The city seems to be listening. Mayor David Coss has suggested releasing a thousand acre feet of water, which would amount to about 10 percent of the city's total use, i.e., a pretty big chunk. What would the river look like then? Groenfeldt explains: "Imagine a 10 gallon fish tank. Now imagine a whole line of these tanks in the river -- that much water flowing all the time. It sounds reasonable, a good starting point."€

In addition to restoring the river, that minimal flow has other advantages. It will create space in the reservoirs for more water, and some of it, of course, will sink into the ground and replenish the wells.

The 10 percent of the city's water use that goes into the river could also be made up by public conservation, like appealing to Santa Fe residents to take quicker showers. Actually, we are surprisingly disciplined already. In most American cities, per capita water use is 150-170 gallons a day. In Santa Fe, it's 106 and declining. (But the city's population isn't; it's 70,000 and growing).

If you ask most Santa Feans, would you rather have a dead river or a living river, the answer is obvious. Water would bring back the cottonwood and willow trees and indigenous grasses that are now languishing on the river's banks. Animal life would thrive, even though it has shown remarkable survival skills despite the lack of water. Two incidents last year proved that. A mountain lion, presumed to have snuck into town along the riverbed, smashed the glass door of a downtown jewelry store and had to be tranquillized by police and carried back into the mountains. Not long after that, a tree fell over downtown, and beavers were blamed for gnawing through the trunk.

This town is still the frontier, in some ways, which helps explain the proprietary feeling New Mexicans have about water, called "the lifeblood of the land"€ by the ancient Spanish settlers. Once Santa Fe chooses a living river, the next question is: what is it worth to you? What are you willing to sacrifice?

"Then you get all kinds of answers,"€ Groenfeldt acknowledges. "Part of the reason is that many people here don't think it's possible. They've been brought up to accept that the river doesn't flow, and there must be a reason. We live in a dry climate, there are lots of people here and we need lots of water. We can't afford to have water in the river. Yet, there are lots of locations with lots of people in dry climates, and they don't dam up every drop of water the way we do."€

Groenfelt has been a Santa Fe resident since 2002. "But when I started talking about reviving the river a year ago, the question I often got asked"€ - incredulously - "was, "€˜How long have you lived here?'"€

That attitude is changing. In early December, an all-day meeting to discuss the river's future drew 110 supporters. Mayor Coss showed up to brag that Santa Fe is "the first community in the Southwest to allocate water to restore a river."€ One enthusiastic speaker offered 33 ways to accomplish that goal. Isn't that proof that a flowing river and a growing economy are compatible?

Well, maybe. Keep in mind that one of those 33 solutions was "pray."€