The Santa Fe Review

A Journal of Commentary and Reportage

copyright 2005 by George Johnson

Dispatches from the Water Wars

updated 6/2/05

Santa Fe Canyon Rainbow, 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
(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

June 2, 2005

14. Shutting Down the River Again

The return of the Santa Fe River this spring has not only staved off the death of more willows and cottonwoods. It has helped to revive a city whose primary natural resource -- its charm -- is constantly threatened with extinction from overdevelopment.

The reason for the reprieve, of course, has been an unusually wet winter and spring, creating more mountain runoff than the city can hold behind its two upstream dams. But there is no reason why, with careful planning, there cannot be a threshold of water running through Santa Fe all the time. The sound and the sight of a living river does not have to be a meteorological fluke. Nor does it have to be something determined by unelected city water officials.

Today's New Mexican reports that, with the runoff now diminishing, the Water Division plans to cut off the flow entirely within the next two weeks. Barring a freak early summer thunderstorm, the river will be bone dry until at least late July when the monsoons begin. Then, if the dams become brim full again, the water bureaucrats will lend us our river back.

More than the drought, this feast and famine approach is what is damaging the riparian corridor. Had it the will, the City Council and Mayor could decide to adopt a policy of evening out the flow. Instead of no water for months on end punctuated by an erosional surge, we could have a real river -- well, sometimes just a creek -- continually running through the center of town. This would be good for trees, good for the community, and (like it or not) even good for tourism.

The Santa Fe Watershed Association has been quietly calling for just such an approach. And according to the New Mexican story, Councilor David Coss may be leaning this way. With the river still running, it may be possible for a few councilors to grab the public spotlight and push through a plan.

Without some action, it seems predictable that one of Santa Fe's more aggressive environmental groups will decide one day to force the city's hand -- with a lawsuit charging mismanagement of a public resource, or the discovery of a federally protected endangered species along the river banks. Coming soon to a courtroom near you: the Santa Fe Canyon silvery minnow. There has to be a better way.

George Johnson

on to Part 15 . . .


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