The Santa Fe Review

A Journal of Commentary and Reportage

copyright 2005 by George Johnson

Dispatches from the Water Wars

updated 2/21/05

Casco Bay, Maine, photo by George Johnson

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 . . . desalination word games . . . and Aamodt South
10. The Engineering Solution
11. The Sorrows of San Acacio

12. The City's Dubious Water Report. . . and some numbers that don't add up -- (updated 2/21/05)

Our story continues:

There was a time when the name Starbuck (singular) evoked water instead of espresso. For it was Bill Starbuck, the protagonist of N. Richard Nash's Broadway musical, The Rainmaker, who arrived one day in a parched Western town offering to end the drought for $100. The amiable conman, who has been played on stage and screen by Burt Lancaster, Tommy Lee Jones, and Woody Harrelson, might have been smarter to hitch up his wagon and head for Santa Fe.

He would have found a receptive audience. Eager to turn the town into another Albuquerque, that model of urban planning, local entrepreneurs had come before the city leaders with one grand plan after another: cloud seeding, desalination, California-style water projects -- everything short of contracting with the Pueblo of Pojoaque to perform daily rain dances in front of the Cities of Gold Casino.

The beauty of these schemes was that they would be paid for by the government -- city, county, state, but with the lion's share of money coming from Washington.

It wasn't always an easy sell. Often these beseechers were the very same people philosophically opposed to government interference with business. Now here they were asking for tax money to keep their industry, real estate speculation, alive.

Not that they would admit to a contradiction. To hear them speak, one would have thought that their intentions were purely eleemosynary -- "creating homes for families," "providing good jobs." All would prosper, rich and poor, if the marketplace were allowed to operate freely, with infusions of federal money and imported water. It's the way the West was won.

After all, the government had already agreed, many years ago, to blow a hole right through the Continental Divide, bringing in Colorado water for the dry, overbuilt cities of the Rio Grande. All that water now was spoken for (the building had continued) but more was surely on the way.

All these visionaries were asking for was a $278 million regional water system, with a Romanesque aqueduct running down to Santa Fe; a $120 million diversion dam; a $127 million desalination project -- and in return

Well, that was the beauty of it. In return Santa Fe would have to do nothing it hadn't always done. Keep building . . .

January 27, 2005

10. The Engineering Solution

Twenty-seven days -- that's as long as the Estancia Basin desalination plan remained alive. Having found the project to be as unpopular with Santa Feans as with Estancians, city councilors put it on hold at a committee meeting last week. Last night, as more than a hundred protestors arrived to reiterate their opposition, the council voted to drop the matter entirely. Whether or not importing water from the south was economically or technologically feasible, it proved to be politically impossible.

With great feats of engineering there are always ways to pipe in water, especially if money is no object. In the 1960s, some Los Angeles engineers came up with a $200 billion dollar proposal, called the North American Water and Power Alliance, to harness the mighty rivers of British Columbia, Alaska, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories -- all that fresh water wastefully flowing into the oceans -- and sending most of it to the United States.

The Rocky Mountain Trench would be turned into a reservoir 500 miles long -- "the continent's hydrologic switching yard," Marc Reisner called it in Cadillac Desert -- engulfing the Upper Columbia and the Fraser. The flow of entire rivers would be reversed, pumped across mountain ranges. The giant Peace River, flowing across the Alberta Plains, would become a waterway connecting the whole system to the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.

Here is what this North American water grid would have looked like:

Canadians were less impressed with the idea than Americans, and today the only politician pushing it is Lyndon LaRouche.

If increasing its population were the only motive, Santa Fe could probably find the money to pursue its own smaller-scale project. It could buy out both Estancia and Rio Arriba agriculture and continue on from there. All it takes, at first, is a few farmers willing to sell. The city gets their water, the developers get their land, which is now good for nothing but housing. At first there would be holdouts. But as their own farms became surrounded by subdivisions, and the price of water and land got higher and higher, they too would succumb.

Reallocating all that water to urban and suburban growth would mean a bigger population and a bigger economy -- more schools, more hospitals, more big box retail establishments and shopping centers. Like the northeast heights of Albuquerque, Santa Fe would become a grid of Cerrillos Roads. A bigger economy means a bigger tax base, so there would be more revenue to buy more water to grow still more.

For all the talk about water budgets and general plans, this is the urban vision being pursued by default in Santa Fe. It is implicit in the assumption that growth is something that must be accommodated, not controlled -- and that our economic health depends on building a limitless number of houses.

In fact the construction industry makes up less than 7 percent of the Santa Fe area economy, providing about 4,000 jobs. (This is from a 2002 study by the University of New Mexico's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, The Economic Impact of a Growth Rate Ordinance in the City of Santa Fe.) Last year a report by the same outfit found that arts and crafts and "cultural tourism" employ three times that many people -- 12,567 workers, 17.5% of total employment -- and bring in 40 percent of all the money flowing into the city and county from beyond.

	Representation of artists and cultural workers in Santa
	Fe's labor force is unparalleled -- the city boasts the
	largest proportion of artists, performers & writers as
	share of total employment of any U.S. city, and is among
	the top 10 in terms of museum curators, architects and
	graphic designers. 

By some measures, this is the second largest art market in the United States.

If you add in ordinary "noncultural" tourism -- skiers, hikers, sight-seers -- and a significant portion of the real estate resale business, a huge chunk of the economy exists because Santa Fe is Santa Fe. The city's primary natural resource is its ambience and charm.

The earlier UNM report suggested that tying the housing market to the availability of existing water would not have a severe economic impact. A small segment of the economy would get somewhat smaller, but there would still be plenty of work remodeling existing homes and building large nonresidential projects. A new county courthouse, the Museum of New Mexico complex downtown -- there is always something on the books.

What no report has considered is what will happen if the largest portion of the local economy, arts and tourism, is sacrificed to uncontrolled growth. There must be a limit to how long Santa Fe can keep selling itself as a cultural mecca when it is steadily turning itself into just one more sprawling western town.

January 29, 2005

11. The Sorrows of San Acacio

San Acacio

When I first came to Camino San Acacio twelve years ago, after a brief stay on Abeyta Street, I thought I was moving into an established, thoroughly built-out neighborhood. This was, after all, one of the oldest parts of town, with the high density of housing typical of the historic districts. That was part of the charm.

For a couple of years I lived in a fool's paradise, enjoying the roosters crowing in the morning, until one day everything began to change. The stock market collapsed, interest rates dropped to record lows, and investors were looking for a quick way to make a killing. So began the great East Side Construction Boom.

One by one, modest old houses were gutted and rebuilt, sometimes doubling in size. New lots seemed to magically appear. What looked like the small junk-strewn side yard of a crumbling adobe shack near Camino Cabra was recognized as a legal lot and granted exemptions to "footprint" requirements (a house can occupy only a certain percentage of the land) and "setback" requirements (it must stand several feet back from the property line). The grand new home that has arisen from the weeds and beer cans practically touches the walls of its neighbors. A few years later the shack itself changed hands and has been transformed into another grand residence.

At the other end of the block, by Camino Delora, the old home and studio of the artist Alexander Girard had already been divided into three luxury condominiums. Now, next door, on an odd L-shaped lot (I'd thought it was someone's driveway), another new house is being built.

Most dramatic of all is what has been happening on the southwest corner of Delora and San Acacio, where an open meadow that extends uphill toward an old reservoir was bought by an Eldorado dentist/real estate speculator and chopped into three lots, each to be filled with imposing "spec houses." Building on this fairly steep slope involves "cut and fill" construction, the most destructive kind. Back hoes scrape and beep throughout the week, while a steady stream of dump trucks roars down little San Acacio hauling away dirt, dodging the cement mixers hauling in concrete.

Altogether within a radius of one block, I count ten new residences that did not exist just a few years ago. Each means another water hookup, another sewer hookup, and two or three more cars driving daily up and down the narrow, unpaved street. This is what the urban planners celebrate as "in-fill" development. In theory it reduces sprawl. In actuality what you get is both sprawl and the loss of what little urban open space remained.

Every time I think the frenzy is about to subside, ground is broken for another project. A few months ago, a Santa Fe Properties real estate sign sprung up in front of a traditional old adobe just down the street. The owners, having obtained a "family lot split" several years earlier, one of the most abused of the city's development loopholes, were now selling off their backyard for $349,000. The next thing I knew, some potential buyers had met with the planning commission, coming away with the variances that would allow them to build on what would otherwise be considered a protected slope. (Some neighbors appealed and now the project is apparently in limbo, but inevitably there will be another house on the street.)

Visitors from out of state find all of this astonishing. In the real world, creating a new lot in the middle of an established neighborhood is a very big deal. One of the axioms of responsible city planning is that a "buildable" lot must have a certain amount of frontage on the public right of way -- that you cannot just decide to sell your backyard. In fact, neighbors opposing just such a lot split recently discovered, to everyone's surprise, that Santa Fe's own development code contains a similar restriction. But it has been routinely ignored for years.

Now City Hall is in the process of dropping the requirement altogether, loosening the code even more. In the last few years the Council has already reduced setback requirements and raised the percentage of a lot that a house can cover -- declaring that this boon to the developers will increase the supply of affordable housing. In the case of the looming new adobes on San Acacio, "affordable" will have to be redefined as meaning no more than a million dollars.

February 6, 2005

12. The City's Dubious Water Report

In 1988 visitors strolling up the Alameda on a summer day would have enjoyed the sound of flowing water and the cool shade of cottonwoods. The grass along the riverbank added to the riparian allure, which extended a mile and a half eastward to the rolling green slope of Patrick Smith Park.

Returning six years later, they would have found that the grass had died along with many of the cottonwoods and that the park was a desiccated patch of dirt and weeds. Other parks and public spaces had suffered as badly. The front lawn of the downtown library, scraped away during a construction project, was replaced with gravel and artificial grass resembling the stuff sold at K-Mart to line Easter baskets. All over town, shrubs and trees had been sacrificed to the drought. Yet there were plenty of new houses.

This is all by way of introduction to city hall's enthusiastic announcement last week that Santa Fe has cut its water consumption to a record low, actually using less in 2004 than in 1988. If true, that is fine news indeed, but there is another side to the story. Whatever water has been saved has gone not to the public good -- healthy parks, a flowing river -- but to development. The conservation efforts of the citizenry have been rewarded with dead parks, a dead river, and more subdivisions.

In fact, there are reasons to doubt that the water saving is even real. In an editorial in today's Journal, Karen Peterson reminds us that 2004 was one of the wettest in several years, greatly reducing the need for irrigation. At the same time tourism has dropped from its peak in the late 80s and early 90s. (Remember when it was nearly impossible to get a table downtown, not just in the summer but during the December-January ski season?)

Most significant of all, Ms. Peterson points out, Las Campanas is no longer consuming potable water to irrigate its desert golfing greens. Through a deal with the city, it has begun using treated effluent instead. When the Las Campanas water, some 400 acre-feet, is subtracted from the equation, 2004's figures appear to be unremarkable. Take the other factors into account and there may have been no savings at all.

Maybe a more meaningful approach would be to pick a week when it hardly ever rains and see how water use has varied year by year. During the third week of June 2002, Santa Feans consumed an average of 35.0 acre-feet a day. A year later the figure had risen to 36.1, and by 2004 to 43.3. (This is from the city's weekly water reports.) For the entire week that comes out to an increase of 2.7 million gallons -- a trend opposite from what the city's report suggests.

Now if we knew the hotel occupancy rates for that week, the average temperature, etc., we could sharpen the numbers further, then see how they compared with 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, et cetera. (The data on the city web site go back only to 2002.) In the West water statistics are so fraught with political significance that they deserve the same scrutiny as a financial audit. Lacking that, claims like the one the city made last week are just hype.

February 16, 2005


The more I look at the city's water numbers, the less sense they make to me. If you click over to the weekly water report for January 2, 2005, you can see how much Santa Feans drew from the wells and reservoirs last year:

City well field: 1,467.67 acre-feet
Buckman well field: 5,737.10 acre-feet
Upper Canyon Reservoirs: 3,174.66 acre-feet

Altogether that comes to 10,379.43 acre-feet, or about 3.38 billion gallons for 2004 -- what the city claims is the lowest "production" or "demand" since 1988. (The memo announcing this, studded with exclamation points, uses the terms interchangeably.) Water officials also aver that per capita consumption last year fell to an impressively low 111 gallons, or what amounts to 40,515 gallons per person per year.

But how did they do the calculation? It would seem logical that you would simply take the total amount of water supplied to the system (the 3.38 billion gallons produced in 2004) and divide it by the number of users. The city doesn't say how many that is, but we can back out the figure by dividing 3.38 billion by 40,515. The answer is 83,426 water users.

That can't be right. According to the most recent Santa Fe Trends report (the city's annual compilation of statistics), the number of customers using the system was 76,000 in 2003. For per capita consumption to have dropped as low as reported for 2004, the customer base would have to have suddenly jumped by more than 7,400, or 9.8 percent in a single year. Even if you count annexation, the population isn't increasing at anywhere near that rate (it's more like 2 percent per annum).

Here is another source of confusion: the planning division, which compiles the annual Santa Fe Trends reports, and the water division seem to quantify water use in different ways. Something called "city water system demand," cited in the Trends reports, was 9,800 acre-feet for 2002 and 10,150 acre-feet or 2003. But for the same years, the water division's "total production" (which, remember, it also calls total demand) was 10,544 and 11,108.

I must be missing something here. But in any case, it's clear that the numbers the city is using to justify its policies toward water and development are anything but transparent. The answer, I think, must lie in something called the "Annual Water Budget Administrative Procedures." I've put in a request to the City Clerk for a copy.

February 21, 2005


Rick Carpenter, whose title is Water Resources Projects Coordinator for the City of Santa Fe, has told me in an email that the city water system serves approximately 30,000 metered customers, a number that is believed to represent about 70,000 people. That comes out to 132.37 gallons per person per day. So clearly the much lower figure the city came up with involves a more convoluted procedure than simple division. Alas, my hope that this would be spelled out in the water budget administrative procedures has not been realized. Article IV, Paragraph 1 of this 25-page document seems to have all there is to say:

Compilation of Data and Reports. Not later than January 5 of each year the Public Utilities Director and the Planning and Land Use Director shall jointly compile and prepare reports which set forth their opinion as to Total System Supply and Total System Demand. The reports shall include all of the available information relevant to a determination of Total System Supply and Total System Demand. The reports shall also include the total water available from all sources utilized in the Water System by virtue of permits, contracts or other authority allowing water to be diverted and utilized in the Water System; the total amount of water diverted from each such source during the preceding 12 months period; the total water actually delivered from the Water System in the preceding twelve-month period for each use or other destination of that water.

That provides for a great deal of interpretive wiggle-room. Kyle Harwood, the Assistant City Attorney for water policy, declined my request to explain the procedure in an email (apparently it is far too complex and nuanced), though he has offered to sit down sometime and discuss the matter. To avoid misunderstanding, I like to see things on paper. Hence I have submitted a request to the City Clerk for the following: "Document or documents describing the precise procedure by which the Public Utilities Director and the Sangre de Cristo Water Division Director calculated the figures on water production and per capita water usage described in a memo, dated January 24, 2005, to the Public Utilities Committee regarding "Analysis of Water Demand Reduction from 2003 to 2004."

I'll also try to find time to meet with Mr. Harwood for a tutorial. An interesting question is whether Santa Fe uses the same formula as Albuquerque, Tucson, Phoenix, and so forth. If not then the low per capita useage figures City Hall regularly boasts about would be even more suspect.

Meanwhile, since the city doesn't make it readily available, here is a copy of the "Annual Water Budget Administrative Procedures." The document does shed light on another mystery raised here in an earlier installment: why the Water Budget Ordinance stipulates that builders carry out between eight and twelve retrofits for each new fixture installed (which would almost certainly make up for the increased water consumption), while in practice they are required to do only a fraction that many: eight to twelve retrofits for each new house. Apparently when the administrative procedures were compiled, the requirement was (sorry) watered down.

George Johnson

on to Part 13 . . .

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