The Santa Fe Review

A Journal of Commentary and Reportage

copyright 2007 by George Johnson

Dispatches from the Land and Water Wars

updated 3/9/07

photo by George Johnson, copyright 2007

1. Retrofit Arithmetic (and Rainbarrel Economics)
2. The San Juan-Chama Shell Game
3. The Case of the Disappearing Aquifer
4. The Creative Hydrology of Suerte del Sur
5. The City, the County, and a Water Tax Revolt
6. Water Numerology at City Hall
(Our story thus far)
7. The Woman at Otowi Gauge
8. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
9. The Las Campanas Connection
(Our story continues)
10. The Engineering Solution

11. The Sorrows of San Acacio
12. The City's Dubious Water Report
13. Where the Water Went
14. Shutting Down the River Again
15. Picking on the Davises
16. The Tom Ford Webcam
17. Galen Buller's Day Off
18. Forgive and Forget
19. Election Postmortem
20. El Molino Gigante

21. Hotel Santa Fe
(Our story continues)
22. The Environmental Impact of Jennifer Jenkins
23. The Short-term Rental Racket
24. Archbishop Lamy's Parking Lot
25. Mayor Coss's Lost Gamble
26. Tommy Macione Swamp
27. Sweeney Center Blues
28. The Tragedy of the Commoners
29. Councilors, Cops, and Russian Dolls
30. West Side Story

31. Taking Back the River
32. The Case of the Clovis Pigs
33. The San Juan-Chama Shell Game Revisited
34. The Santa Barbara Review and The Return to Santa Fe
35. Kepler's Inquisition . . . The Ballad of Jerry Peters . . . and the Blizzard of '06
36. The Top 10 Stories of 2007
37. The Thornburg Dilemma

January 28, 2007

38. Santa Fe's Dying River Plan

Except for recent days when the temperature got all the way up to freezing, January in Santa Fe has reminded me of two winters I endured in Minneapolis, so bone-chillingly cold that you had to scrape your breath from the inside of the windshield as you drove. For half a block your tires, squared off and frozen from a night on the street, would rumble along the pavement until they thawed. On a day like today (predicted high 37 F.) people would be out in Bermuda shorts barbecuing and washing their cars.

Hard as it is to imagine, in a couple of months the mountain snowpack will start melting, overflowing the reservoirs, already 83 percent full, and flushing out the river from Nichols Reservoir to the Rio Grande. A few weeks later the runoff will slacken and the city will shut down the river again. Through the driest, hottest part of the year not a drop will be released from the dams. The cottonwoods and other vegetation will wither, the threat of a bosque fire will increase, and the city will continue approving new subdivisions.

As evidenced by today's editorial in the Journal and an earlier news report, our city leaders, Mayor Coss included, still don't get it. Except for the very worst of the drought years, more water flows from the mountains and into the upper Canyon dams than the city has the legal right to use. In an average year the excess is around 1,500 acre feet. (Thaw Report, p. 15.) The water is going to be released into the lower river anyway. With better planning it could be done gradually instead of in one fell swoop. There would be a small perennial flow from spring through autumn, more recharge of the aquifer, and the city would still get the 5,040 acre-feet it claims.

Judging from the news coverage and a conversation I had over dinner last fall with two of the Mayor's confidantes, nothing like that is even on the table. The so-called Living River plan is as vague, unambitious, and distant as ever.

"I look forward to a day when children don't ask where the Santa Fe River is because they can see the living river and tell us about it," Mr. Coss declared last year in his state of the city address. If he can only muster the political courage, that day could be now.

George Johnson

January 29, 2007

Finally a few more details on the Thornburg tax break, which we learn from Kiera Hay in the Journal would save the company some $325,000 a year. In return Thornburg would pay the city about $25,000 to make up for the property taxes it won't be collecting."This is not a loss in any shape or form for the city of Santa Fe," a company spokesman assures the Journal. Left unmentioned is the $300,000 in taxes that the county and school district stand to lose.

Otherwise there is not much new in the story, with Thornburg continuing to argue that it is owed the money because of delays caused by a citizens group's lawsuit.

George Johnson

January 30, 2007

Tomorrow night's City Council meeting promises to be quite a show, pitting developer Kurt Young and his emissary, Jennifer Jenkins, against Karl Sommer, who is representing the Vista Encantada Neighborhood Association. It should be fun watching Mr. Sommer playing against type and condemning the very kind of proposal -- rezoning a residential lot to allow 25 condominiums -- that he would customarily support. With Ms. Jenkins (described in a mailing by the neighborhood group as "a blonde-haired, blue-eyed barracuda") on the opposing side, this will be the best thing on Wednesday night TV.

In an even weirder twist, a story in today's Journal quotes Tom Hasse as the spokesman for Mr. Young's company. Readers may remember Mr. Hasse as the blustering former mayor of Malibu, California, who emerged along with Mr. Young as one of the Santa Fe Grass Roots cohorts. All of this puts Councilor Carmichael Dominguez in an uncomfortable position: Another Grass Roots principal, Eli Senna, was his campaign manager in 2004.

George Johnson

February 9, 2007

The Dead

Private First Class Sam Ballen, 1943
"Without Reservations," Ocean Tree Books

He had other quieter pleasures. On a fine hillside in the Tesuque Cañon about three or four miles from town, he had acquired in 1853 the small country property where he could retire for rest, meditation, concentrated work. There he had built a small lodge, consisting of two rooms -- one a tiny chapel with its altar for his daily Mass, the other his combined sitting room and bedroom. He called it the Villa Pintoresca. It had a vast view of the Jemez Mountains, and nearer, the golden-pink barrancas of the eroded sandstone screens above Española. The play of light over all these at any time was marvelous, but especially so in early morning and in evening. The little estancia was his delight. He liked to receive people there. The road to it between the foothills and in the cañon of the little Tesuque River gradually grew more passable. . . . Though other people rode, Lamy often walked the whole way to the lodge. -- Paul Horgan, Lamy of Santa Fe.

Lamy's retreat became, of course, Bishop's Lodge, a grand old hotel that preserved at least a smattering of his spirit until it was sold by the Thorpe family in 1998, becoming one more item in the portfolio of ERE Yarmouth, a real estate investment conglomerate. Not content with the profits to be squeezed from what was remade into a "luxury resort and spa," the East Coast investors have gone on to destroy the beauty of Lamy's hills with a housing and condominium development.

Bishop's Lodge was not the first to fall. Snapped up by a national chain, Inn at Loretto became Loretto Inn and Spa, while charming old La Posada, acquired by Olympus Real Estate of Dallas, mutated into a cold, unfriendly fortress whose steady stream of buses and supply trucks has turned a quiet block on Palace Avenue into an industrial zone. I still remember a Historic Review Board meeting where a phalanx of La Posada's corporate suits sat in a back row snickering as a neighbor from across the street unleashed a litany of complaints. There is no honor anymore in running a good hotel, especially now that La Fonda's Sam Ballen is gone.

I met him only once, almost seven years ago, at a party on Sosaya Lane. A couple of months later I got an email from him:

	I maintain loyalty to the post office which served us for
	centuries, so if you will provide your address I would like to
	write to you re: Strange Beauty after I return from skiing

	- Sam Ballen

He was 78.

Sam was referring to a biography I had just written of a famous physicist, and a few days later I received in the mail a typewritten critique along with thoughts about Robert Oppenheimer, whom he had met in 1939. After his memoir Without Reservations came out from Ocean Tree Books, I bought a copy at La Fonda's newsstand and read it cover to cover. The no-holds-barred description of a young Jerry Peters and his hostile attempt to take over the hotel reveals more about money and power in Santa Fe than anything I know.

It's a sad thought, that La Fonda might be fated to go the way of Bishop's Lodge, acquired by a distant corporation and turned into timeshares or another luxury spa. But that's the way Santa Fe is headed, and Sam Ballen won't be here to resist.

George Johnson

Julia Goldberg, the editor of The Reporter, has written a moving tribute to Olivia Tsosie. Like so many others I was privileged to receive her dispatches on local and global affairs from Agua Fria or Oaxaca or wherever she was. Just a few days ago came a missive enthusing over someone named Fernando Vallejo, "a microbiologist from Colombia who lives off writing dark novels" and essays that "pulled together all my thoughts about the slime of organic material that the hydrogen bond has made possible on this unlikely ball of rock."


	I'm an intellectual without portfolio, trained in thinking,
	nursing, physiology, health care, homeostasis, non linear
	thinking, math without numbers (drove my college folks nuts, took
	up linguistics till chomsky killed it) and smarter than the
	average bear, mother of eight, which is a bit of a distraction,
	and inside agitator. i want to pitch this vallejo to you for a
	quick peruse to see if he tickles your fancy. could we have a cup
	of coffee in agua fria after next Friday, maybe an hour or so of
	your time for that . . .
And I, always the recluse, begged off until later this spring. Now I learn she died this morning at 74. Complications from bone cancer.

February 11, 2007

She went out with a bang, with an eloquent commentary in this morning's Journal on the erosion of community by private interests. The occasion: a recent proposal that the county subsidize a new southside development by declaring it a "Public Improvement District" and issuing bonds. (County Commissioner Jack Sullivan described the scheme in an earlier op-ed piece.) Ms. Tsosie wrote:

	Housing in Santa Fe is good business. Housing contractors and
	developers need to pay their own way. We do not need to beg them
	to let us pay for their externalized expenses. They need to show
	us how they will be part of the great and productive and
	passionately, democratically fair local system of self-governance
	that is the only living glory that American democracy has to
	offer the world.

George Johnson

February 13, 2007

This morning's papers report that the Thornburg industrial revenue bond was unanimously approved by the Economic Development Review Committee, the first step in a decision that will ultimately rest with City Hall. From the sounds of it, the meeting was basically a cheerleading session with Mayor Coss praising the plan and Councilor Wurzburger declaring that she is left sleepless by "the very idea that the perfect company for Santa Fe would leave." Never mind that Garrett Thornburg has vowed to stay here no matter what.

As reported in the New Mexican, his company is now claiming that the county and schools won't really lose out because "they're getting almost nothing today from taxes on vacant land." But that's misleading. One way or the other this valuable piece of commercial real estate, right at the heart of the booming Northwest Quadrant, will be developed, if not by Thornburg then the old-fashioned way -- by a tax-paying enterprise.

So the question remains. Why should the public subsidize a company whose assets (we learn from the Journal) have increased by $75 billion since 2000?

Meanwhile Russell Simon reports that city staff has issued new recommendations on vacation rentals to replace those written last year by an industry-dominated advisory committee. The minimum stay would be cut from 30 to seven days, but in return no more than a dozen rentals would be allowed during the year. Licensing fees and other restrictions might mark an improvement over the current wildcat situation. But the bottom line is the same: rezoning residential neighborhoods for the benefit of the tourism industry.

George Johnson

February 25, 2007

More on the Dying River Plan

In an important thrust in the water wars, Neil Williams, an environmental engineer with Watershed West, has proposed that 2007 mark the beginning of a new strategy for managing the Santa Fe River and reviving the aquifer that has been so severely depleted by unrestricted development and drought.

	This year there is a good snow pack in the upper
	watershed that will yield good runoff into the Santa Fe
	reservoirs. With little risk, the City of Santa Fe could
	conduct an aquifer recharge evaluation by controlled
	slow release of water from Nichols Reservoir to the
	Santa Fe river. From the river channel, the water will
	seep into the shallow aquifer and recharge the City's
	riverside wells. . . . As it flows from the reservoir to
	the aquifer, the controlled release of water will revive
	the river while conserving and protecting the City's
	drinking water supply.

The city would not be giving up water, but transferring it through a "living conduit" to a subsurface bank account -- insurance for the future. As a bonus, water might flow as far as St. Francis Drive, reversing the slow death of the upper bosque and the loss of priceless, century-old cottonwoods. To ensure maximum recharge, Mr. Williams proposes, a gradual release should begin immediately.

The chances of that happening, of course, are almost zero. The city's water strategy is set by well-meaning bureaucrats who are rewarded not for maintaining a healthy water table but for anticipating the short-term demands of some 60,000 residents -- along with everyone in the world who decides to move here and build a house. As Mr. Williams put it in a recent email: "Absent a Council directive to manage the reservoirs for recharge as well as for supply and flood control, once again the flow will be shut down just as soon as the reservoirs can capture everything. In the prevailing reservoir management scheme, recharge and flow in the river carry no weight."

Instead of rising to the call, our leaders appoint yet another River Commission to study the problem and propose feel-good measures like a checkoff box on city utility bills so we can volunteer to "buy water for the river" (and indirectly subsidize more development). Or we can Give a Valentine to the Santa Fe River (by helping pick up trash) or join in a Water Conservation Poster Contest. Admirable as these measures may be, they constitute the entirety so far of Mayor Coss's Living River Plan.

There is no reason to doubt his sincerity. What is in question is his resolve to stand up to the real estate industry, which would love to see Santa Feans contributing their pennies to a water rights fund while business continues as usual.

George Johnson

March 9, 2007

With spring in the air, the giant crane is back, planting more piñones at the Tom Ford mansion site.

George Johnson

on to Part 39, Blinded by Pseudoscience . . .

Coming this weekend: The Great Wireless Conspiracy

Coming soon: The Battle for Talaya Hill

The Tom Ford Webcam

The Andrew and Sydney Davis Webcam

Santa Fe Review Detours of the Wild West

The Santa Fe Review

More links:

See the current flow of the Santa Fe River above McClure Reservoir with the USGS automated gauge.

The Otowi gauge shows the flow of the Rio Grande north of Santa Fe.

Santa Fe water information, a collection of documents and links