The Santa Fe Review

A Journal of Commentary and Reportage

copyright 2008 by George Johnson

Dispatches from the Land and Water Wars

updated 6/10/08

Plaza real estate. click the map for details. compiled by George Johnson, copyright 2008

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
38. Santa Fe's Dying River Plan
39. Blinded by Pseudoscience (or the Great Wireless Conspiracy)
40. Blinded by (Andrew Davis's) Light

41. Invasion of the Spa People
42. Buying Back the River
43. The State of the City
44. Before the Fall
45. The Environmental Impact of Selfishness
46. The Battle for Talaya Hill
47. The New Urbanism Scam
48. Festival of the Cranes
49. The Fall of the House of Thornburg

April 20, 2008

50. Who Owns the Plaza?

Clicking anywhere on the image above will open a separate window with a Google map showing who owns the property around the Plaza. You can zoom in, pan out, and click on any of the colored arrows (red = the Peters, Green = the Greers, yellow = the Montoyas . . .) for a dossier of each building.

I've been gradually compiling the information for several weeks with the help of the Santa Fe County online tax database. The result is a work in progress, which no doubt has some rough edges. I welcome corrections and additional information. Eventually I'd like to expand the map to include historical data, but it's hard to imagine that I'll soon find the time.

Last week, for the first leg of a book tour for The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, I traveled to Baltimore to give a talk at Johns Hopkins University. I'd long thought of Baltimore as a gritty place (John Waters's town), but I couldn't have been more mistaken. The cherry blossoms were blooming and the air was crisp and clear. Baltimore has all the charm I remember years ago in Washington before it became too crowded.

Walking along the inner harbor one morning, I saw city workers not only emptying the trash bins but cleaning them with a rag and detergent. They must have also been equipped to remove graffiti because there wasn't any -- not in the harbor district nor anywhere downtown. Later that morning I took a taxi up Charles Avenue, past the Peabody School of Music and the Enoch Pratt Library to the beautiful Hopkin's campus. Still no graffiti. Baltimore must have gangs that make Santa Fe's look like Cub Scout packs. But the city also seems to have something Santa Fe is losing: a sense of civic pride.

Back home, before departing for points west, I was reminded by a story in the Journal of another of our town's failings. For all Mayor Coss's pronouncements about bringing water back to the river, Dan Boyd reports, it's business as usual. Not a drop will be released until both McClure and Nichols are full to the brim and threatening to overflow.

According to the most recently posted daily water report (you can download a spreadsheet here), 7.46 million gallons a day (23 acre-feet) are flowing into the reservoirs from the upper watershed. If the city would allow just 1 or 2 million gallons to pass through to the lower river, the reservoirs would fill a little more slowly (they are already 70 percent full) but we would have water downtown to reinvigorate the bosque and recharge the aquifer.

Instead the city continues with the disastrous policy described by David Groenfeldt, the executive director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association, in a New Mexican op-ed piece today: "Our dry river is more than an embarrassment," he writes, "it's a glaring management failure that we are paying a huge and growing price for not fixing."

	Our river can and should be the heart of our community and the
	centerpiece of our water-supply strategy. The notion that we need
	to sacrifice our river to have water in our reservoirs is an
	outdated policy that most states and most countries abandoned
	years ago. Just as forest managers no longer advocate for total
	fire suppression, no properly educated river manager would today
	advocate for total flow suppression. Our future water security
	depends on storing water in our aquifers as much as in our

Mr. Groenfeldt suggests that we can get water for the river through increased conservation. I still maintain that we're already there: that in an average year more water flows in from the mountains than the city has the capacity or the legal right to store. It's just a matter of smoothing out the flow. Until the city does this, it is only pretending (please see Staci Matlock's story today) to be on a path toward becoming "green" and "sustainable."

George Johnson

April 25, 2008

Why Fi

While I was in Washington, killing time before catching a taxi to Dulles, I walked to the base of the Washington Monument to enjoy the magnificent vista from Lincoln Memorial to Capitol Hill. Heading toward Lafayette Park, I remembered the shopping cart lady I used to see on Pennsylvania Avenue, her head covered in foil. The White House is now an armed fortress so I couldn't get close to where she once stood, handing out pamphlets explaining how the government was controlling her brain with radio waves. Instead I strolled along the Mall, noticing on my iPod that the parks are now equipped with free municipal wifi.

I wonder if the people who are determined to keep wifi out of Santa Fe's libraries realize how ubiquitous it already is. Every downtown hotel beams out a signal. There is wifi at the Lensic and at numerous Plaza eateries. Go to De Vargas Mall with a receiver and you will register one network after another. Walking around my neighborhood, I can pick up several different signals per block. Even the Upaya Zen Center on Cerro Gordo broadcasts wifi.

It is sad that a small band of Santa Feans can't find medical explanations for their headaches and dizzy spells. By blaming wifi, they are retreating into a self-reinforcing group hallucination that impinges on reality only at the edges.

In a page of letters in this week's Reporter, objecting to a column by Zane Fischer, one man claims that his friend was killed by waves from a cellular antenna in the Unitarian Church. He concedes that his theory cannot be proved, but he seems more impressed with the fact that it can't be disproved -- a rationale that will allow one to believe anything.

Another letter writer worries that high-frequency radio waves will interfere with the spiritual energies emanating from his crown chakra, wreaking havoc with his aura and perhaps the universe. The most vocal wifi opponent, Arthur Firstenberg, stubbornly repeats his familiar mantra: that there is a "majority of some 3,000 existing studies" that have found serious health effects from wireless technology. Actually there is not even one.

The mainstream view is summarized in a report by the World Health Organization:

	Considering the very low exposure levels and research results
	collected to date, there is no convincing scientific evidence
	that the weak RF [radio frequency] signals from base stations
	and wireless networks cause adverse health effects.

Wikipedia also has good summaries, with links to the literature, on the health effects of wifi, electromagnetic radiation and health, and electrical sensitivity syndrome. Electromagnetic radiation is undisputedly harmful in frequencies higher than visible light -- ultraviolet and beyond. But cellphones and wifi operate down in the lower-energy microwave range, somewhere between radio and heat waves.

Nothing in science is ever beyond question and dispute. As noted here before, a handful of studies -- contradicted by other studies -- suggests that holding a cellphone to your head all day or living next door to a cellphone tower might conceivably pose a small risk (please see What Science Really Knows About Wifi and Wi Fi Fo Fum). As for wireless Internet, the British Health Protection Agency estimated that sitting in a hotspot for a year, as some people seem to do at Starbucks, is equivalent to making a 20-minute cellphone call.

When Mr. Firstenberg and his acolytes go before the City Council next week, seeking electromagnetic asylum, they will surely cite the BioInitiative Report, in which a dozen or so maverick researchers conclude, contrary to the prevailing view, that everything from power lines to cordless phones is a threat. The reason why the study got almost no notice in the press is either because of (1) an immense conspiracy to suppress the truth or (2) a general agreement among scientists that the analysis is faulty and biased and the conclusions unsound.

The wifi foes are counting on the likelihood that the Council, better equipped to adjudicate zoning issues than scientific evidence, can be easily misled. The matter shouldn't even be on the agenda. The new Southside Library is already wired and ready to go. Santa Fe should wish the Firstenbergers well, and then do what cities across the country have already done: quietly turn on the switch.

George Johnson

May 4, 2008


I'm back from San Francisco (more book publicity) and will soon be heading to Boston and New York. With a few quiet days in between, I'm trying to catch up on the news.

The biggest bombshell of the week got surprisingly little attention. Readers of The New Mexican would not have learned of it at all. Thornburg Mortgage, as Kiera Hay reported in the Journal, is being investigated by both the S.E.C. and the New York Stock Exchange. Maybe this attention will finally inspire the kind of incisive journalism that Thornburg has never been subjected to by either the local or the national press.

Meanwhile come reports that the Council (as the New Mexican astutely predicted) postponed the wifi vote, taking the victims of M.E.S.S. (multiple everything sensitivity syndrome) seriously enough to ask the city attorney to research whether the Americans With Disabilities Act covers "electro-sensitivity." Of course it does not -- the act applies to medically recognized conditions. (St. Vincent Hospital, by the way, is planning to include wifi as part of its expanded services.) But our libraries must wait at least another month -- just in case the governments of Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, Dallas, Albuquerque, and (fill in the name of almost any city in the country) overlooked an important legality when they went wireless. Councilor Trujillo cut to the heart of the absurdity. "It's 2008," he said. "This city needs to embrace technology to give to its children."

Michele Huff, the president of the Santa Fe Public Library Board, put the matter succinctly in today's Journal: "This service is not a mere convenience; for many, it's a necessity." And in an editorial (generously citing The Santa Fe Review), Karen Peterson wrote:

	Wi-Fi is now a standard technology -- as print continues to be --
	for disseminating and accessing information. Accordingly, it
	should be available free to the public -- to students, to people
	who can't afford the $30 or more a month for home Internet
	service, to retirees who've lost their workplace connection, to
	travelers trying to stay in touch with family -- the list of
	potential users is endless. And what better place to offer this
	service than at the same place where free, reliable and
	comprehensive information has always been traditionally and
	readily available? . . . Santa Fe's city councilors should pull
	their heads out of the sand -- at the next available opportunity
	-- and vote for Wi-Fi.

George Johnson

May 18, 2008

The Real Santa Fe

West San Francisco Street at Don Gaspar, c. 1918. photo by Wesley Bradfield (Museum of New Mexico Negative Number 014142)

In the last month I've been in Baltimore, Washington, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, and New York -- where, in what is surely the weirdest experience of my life, I was a guest on the Colbert Report. (You can watch the video here.) Back in Santa Fe, I've been recuperating from too much talk and travel, and earlier this week I was catching up on errands downtown. Parking on Marcy Street, I walked past City Hall to the post office and the bank and finally to lunch at the Burrito Company. It was good to be home again. With a little more time I could have stopped at my favorite bookstore, Collected Works, or the Public Library. I could have seen an art exhibit at one of several museums or bought tickets at the Lensic for an evening performance.

The tourists were out, but most of the bustle was from office workers and other employees of downtown businesses and institutions. There are three newspapers within blocks of the Plaza and numerous banks and law offices. Besides City Hall, we have the county headquarters and District Courthouse, the Federal building, and U.S. District Court. Across the river is the state Supreme Court, the Roundhouse, and dozens of state office buildings. As noon approaches hundreds of employees emerge onto the streets to grab a bite at the Burrito Company, the Plaza Restaurant, Rocque's Carnitas, Tia Sophia's, the Five & Dime, and Bumble Bee's Baja Grill. This vibrant center of commerce is what Zane Fischer refers to in the Reporter as "Santa Fe's useless, make-believe downtown."

Mr. Fischer, the screaming bald man with big sunglasses, is a good satirist. (Even Karen Heldmeyer probably laughed at his caricature of her in an earlier piece attacking Neighborhood Conservation Districts.) Lately he has become a proponent of what we have called here "the new urbanism scam": lighten up on zoning and give the developers what they want, and they will bring us a denser, more affordable, more authentic Santa Fe.

Lured by the charms of downtown living, commuters will give up their yards and cars for a unit in a multi-story complex. Suburban sprawl will abate, and the law of supply and demand will ensure more reasonable housing prices. In Zane's World -- this developer's dream -- the bad guys are reluctant homeowners, historical preservationists, and neighborhood associations. They are standing in the way of progress.

He's right that life would be better if there were cheaper housing and more businesses near the Plaza -- a real Woolworth (or even a Walgreens) instead of a simulation, Big Jo Hardware instead of the Eldorado. It was sad when the other Kaune's on Washington closed (not to mention the Safeway on Grant), when One-Hour Martinizing became a gallery, and when Dee's and its green chile cheeseburgers gave way to high-end tapas. And that's just in the 16 years I've lived here.

But these modest businesses didn't disappear because of a lack of demand. All those downtown workers are still there Monday through Friday, and hundreds of working Santa Feans continue to live just blocks away along St. Francis Drive. What transformed downtown were landlords and real estate investors who figured there was more money to be made catering to tourists than to locals. Packing the streets with condos, even affordable ones, would not cause galleries and boutiques to turn back into laundromats, drugstores, groceries, and auto repair shops.

Nor would much of the residential infill, beyond the 30 percent mandated by law, necessarily be affordable. Even 30 percent is probably an overestimate. There are too many ways to get around the requirement, which is being challenged in court by local builders.

The threat of a dirtier, noisier, more crowded Santa Fe may have receded somewhat with the unanimous decision by the Council to rezone the blocks around Juanita and Alarid Streets to keep them from becoming condo city. The result was to preserve a genuine downtown, middle-class neighborhood. Its residents, like most of us living within a mile or two of the Plaza, shop at Devargas Mall and the stores around Cordova and St. Francis. Downtown is not just the Plaza. And for all its problems, it is far from becoming adobe Disneyland.

George Johnson


I'll be doing a reading and booksigning on Wednesday evening at Collected Works with my colleague Sandra Blakeslee. Please drop by between 5:45 and 7 p.m. to say hello. The event is part of our annual Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop.

June 6, 2008

London Calling

A week ago I was riding the train from Bristol to Hereford, the closest stop to the village of Hay-on-Wye, Wales, and what turned out to be the United Kingdom's biggest book festival. A complex of large white tents had been erected on a muddy field at the edge of town, complete with restaurants, bars, coffee houses, a book store, wireless Internet, and a large sound stage where I spoke to 600 ticket holders who had come to hear about The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments.

Hay-on-Wye, Wales

It was the most enthusiastic audience I've ever spoken to -- the highlight of a week that also included talks at the Bristol Festival of Ideas and the Royal Society for Arts, and three in-studio radio interviews at the BBC in London. By the time I boarded the plane home from Gatwick I was exhausted -- happy to don a pair of noise-canceling headphones and retreat into a bubble of relative calm.

Back here in Santa Fe, the water debate has taken an astonishing turn. For years the city has hailed its toilet retrofit program as a success. Plumbers install cheap low-flow toilets for free and then sell the credits (often through brokers) to construction companies, supposedly making up for the drain on the aquifer caused by more development. Now we learn that an unknown number of the retrofits have been fraudulent.

Dale Lyons, the city's new water resources manager, tells Dan Boyd of the Journal that the system "has led to the rise of illegitimate 'phantom' credits." Mentioned only in passing, this bombshell should be front page news. Anyone who has a toilet replaced under the program is required to sign an affidavit. If, as Mr. Lyons suggests, there has been a conspiracy to falsify these documents, the racketeers should be prosecuted. If an investigation is under way, there has been no mention of it in the papers. Will this be another case of the city betraying its citizens by failing to enforce its own laws?

The Journal goes on to report that proposed changes to the water conservation rules would allow developers to meet their obligations by replacing other plumbing devices -- faucets, shower heads, washing machines, and irrigation controllers. That's all for the good, but as usual any water saved will go not to the river but to subsidize growth.

For now the metastasis may be slowed by the collapse of the housing market. One year ago, the New Mexican's Sunday real estate section sprawled across 20 pages with 11 of them carrying display ads -- Sotheby's, Santa Fe Properties, GMAC . . . This week the number of pages was down to 16 and, more telling, only 4 of them were ads. That is a drop of 64 percent. The classified housing advertisements have also drastically contracted. To bulk out the section, the paper has resorted to canned editorial copy and unpaid house ads for the New Mexican, which must be hemorrhaging money.

The monthly Santa Fe Real Estate Guide hasn't fared much better -- 90 pages last week compared to 130 the year before. While scrolling through the magazine this morning on microfilm, I saw a blast from the past: the edition of June 3, 2007 featured a column, "Mortgage Matters," in which Joseph Badal, then chief lending officer for Thornburg Mortgage, offered sage advice on "Using Home Equity Wisely." Two months later, readers may recall, Mr. Badal bought 5,000 shares of Thornburg at 21.95. This week it closed at 75 cents a share.

To keep from being dropped from the New York Stock Exchange, Thornburg must bring the price back above a dollar. With little hope of increased earnings, the company plans to engage in an act of legerdemain called a "reverse stock split." An ordinary stock split is a sign of confidence: 100 shares at, say, $186 (the current price of Apple), becomes 200 shares at $93. Investors, though their stake is the same, feel richer and the lower share price encourages more sales.

Thornburg will do the opposite. The 1,000 shares I own at 0.75 will become 500 shares at 1.50. Either way the stock is worth 10 percent of what I paid for it in August. After the readjustment, it will feel like even less.

In more disturbing news, the company has announced in a press release another delay in reporting its first-quarter results. Beneath the calm surface of corporate prose one can almost sense the panic of an animal gasping its dying breaths.

George Johnson

June 8, 2008

More Wifi Fummery

In both Sunday papers, the wifi foes continue their attempt to befuddle the public -- and the City Council -- over the issue of wireless Internet in the libraries. Their primary tactic is what propagandists call "the big lie": The greater the falsehood, the more apt some people are to believe it. Thus we're told in an opinion piece by Diana Thatcher (who says she speaks for "six Santa Fe librarians from academic, public, state and special libraries") that there is substantial scientific and medical literature demonstrating that wifi is dangerous. Surely she couldn't make so bold a claim unless it were true. But it's not. That's how a "big lie" works.

Ms. Thatcher goes on to repeat a rumor that has been making the rounds: that the National Library of France has delayed implementing wifi because of concerns over health effects. Google as I might, I can find nothing authoritative about this on the Web -- just undocumented reports like this one posted and reposted by anti-wireless groups. Nor is there a mention of the incident in the archives of the International Herald Tribune, which is based in Paris, or the New York Times. (If anyone out there is fluent in French, please search Le Monde for me.) What little information I could uncover suggests that French officials may have decided to install wired instead of wireless Internet connections primarily because they are faster. (I've written to the library to inquire.) If the decision really was made out of fearfulness, it was based on arguments as unsubstantial as those in Ms. Thatcher's column.

An opinion piece in this morning's Journal is just as misleading, but fortunately there is a counter-response from an expert, Steven Ross:

	Some studies suggest slight increases in various harmful
	effects, such as brain cancers, from exposure to the same
	[cellular] frequencies used in Wi-Fi. But I don't worry about
	claims that Wi-Fi may be harmful.
	Why? Because holding a cell or cordless phone to the ear exposes
	users to 100,000 to 1 million times more radio wave intensity
	than would a Wi-Fi "hot spot." Most cell phones use the 1.9 GHz
	radio band, close to Wi-Fi's 2.4 GHz. Most home cordless phones
	use either 2.4 GHz or 5.8 GHz. So do microwave ovens and
	Bluetooth wireless earplugs.
	Under the circumstances, singling out Wi-Fi is silly. . . .
	[I]f policymakers ban Wi-Fi, they might as well ban electricity,
	microwave ovens, cordless phones and cell phones -- all of which
	produce far higher exposures and thus much greater risk.

Mr. Ross also takes on the myth that there is a recognized medical condition called electrosensitivity, and he describes why the cellphone studies are suspect. We can only hope that our councilors read his piece before voting on the matter this week.

George Johnson

June 10, 2008


A French-speaking reader has kindly responded to my request to search Le Monde for information about the rumored ban on wifi at the French National Library. Judging from the brief story she found, the issue hinges on a labor dispute in which a French public employees union contends that some librarians' headaches are caused by wifi (and possibly portable telephones, telephone relays, and high-intensity lights.) Though the claims are considered unfounded by a government environmental agency, the unions have succeeded in getting four Parisian libraries to unplug their wifi boxes. Here is the translation:

	WiFi Troubles at the Libraries

	Four libraries in the city of Paris have had to disconnect
	their Wi-Fi networks in the face of their employees'
	concerns.  The most recent:  the Sainte-Genevieve
	interuniversity library in the 5th Arrondissement. 
	Management made this decision after an employee decided to
	exercise his right to retire, based on a moratorium on Wi-Fi
	that was adopted in October 2007 by the Health and Security

	A clerk for four years in that library, Gabriel Fondet
	stated: "The pains came on progressively.  Between the
	portable telephones, the portable computers connected to
	Wi-Fi, the high-intensity lights, the nearby telephone relay
	antennas, we are constantly exposed."  Other [employees']
	accounts helped him determine the origin of his troubles. 
	Nevertheless, he remains careful:  "Other sources of
	electromagnetic pollution must also be taken into account.
	Wi-Fi alone may not be responsible for all my ailments,"
	admits Mr. Fonder.

	The Supap-FSU Union and the Priartem, Act for the
	Environment, and Robin of the Roofs [?] support the
	employees.  "Some claim that the pains are psychosomatic.
	That's an argument without proof! We have no presupposition
	as to why these people are suffering," explains Stephane
	Kerckhove, environmental representative for Act.

	Janine Le Calvez, president of Priartem, makes the same
	observation:  "Wi-Fi was developed without studies of its
	health impact.  We have gone from denial of its effects to

	Officials of the French Association for Environmental and
	Employment Safety (Afsset) do not share this opinion.  "We
	cannot eliminate other causes, like stress, linked to the
	presence of the radiating antenna.  Scientifically, one
	cannot credit the theory of illnesses due to Wi-Fi.  There is
	no known short term effect," stated Olivier Merckel, chief of
	the physical agents unit.

	In view of these questions, the traditional hard-wired
	connection has returned, as at the National Library of France
	and in the schools of Courbevoie (Hauts-de-Seine).

	Lucile Ageron

No scientific evidence is cited. All the story shows is that the French labor movement remains influential and that Cartesian logic is no healthier in Paris than it is in Santa Fe.

George Johnson

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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