The Santa Fe Review

A Journal of Commentary and Reportage

copyright 2006 by George Johnson

Dispatches from the Water Wars

updated 3/23/06

Strange Attainments. painting by Lauren Jackson, copyright 2005

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
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

September 6, 2005

15. Picking on the Davises

I used to think of them as the Seven Hills of Santa Fe, as alluring in their own way as the Seven Hills of Rome. Then in late June I returned home from England to find that the northernmost hill, perhaps the nicest of them all, has had its head chopped off. If anyone thinks that is an exaggeration, I invite them to stop along Gonzales Road and look at Mount Davis, as we now can call it, through a pair of binoculars. What was once a gently rolling contour of piñon and juniper looks like a gravel quarry.

Soon it will hold a 23,000-square-foot mansion, the size of Sweeney Convention Center, and a 3,000-square-foot guest house. A prominent piece of Santa Fe's skyline has been altered forever with no real public debate.

There was a time when something like this would have unleashed an uproar among Santa Fe's environmentally-minded citizenry. Instead we read one letter after another in the New Mexican defending the owners, mutual fund magnate Andrew Davis and his wife, as wonderful, generous people. "Don't pick on the Davises," their friends admonish. They have given so much to all the right causes. It will be an honor to look up at their place in the sky.

Among the Davis's beneficiaries is the local Democratic party, which may help explain the silence of the same politicians and community leaders who rushed to counter Shirley Maclaine's assault on Atalaya mountain in 1993. Acquiescing just as readily are the editors of the local papers, who assure their readers that no laws have been broken and that everything is being done according to code.

The conclusion is not based on any kind of independent assessment. The newspapers are content to take the word of the same city officials who would have most to lose if the house was, as some are arguing, improperly approved. At best, the lawyers and architects for the project gerrymandered around the ridgetop ordinance -- designing an estate so huge that it would fit nowhere but on the hilltop. But it may not be just the spirit of the law that was violated. If a local attorney's interpretation is correct, City Hall, always fearful of being sued, has seriously misapplied the regulations that were meant to protect the foothills from just this kind of encroachment.

Meanwhile the earthmoving machinery keeps eating away at the hilltop, and some of the same people who, in the past, would be out there protesting will probably be on the guest list for the house-warming party -- their chance to see what the realtors would call, with unintended double entendre, the ultimate "drop dead view."

George Johnson

March 2, 2006

16. The Tom Ford Webcam

I hadn't intended to be away from this site for so long, and I thank those of you who continue to check in once in awhile. I hope to be posting again soon as the seasonal water wars heat up. There is much to catch up on.

In the meantime, I invite you to read the results of the questionnaires sent to the District 1, District 2, and mayoral candidates by the Canyon Neighborhood Association and to check out the Tom Ford Webcam. I have a more powerful lens on order, so the images should improve. Today, Mr. Ford's people are planting piñon trees.

George Johnson

March 5, 2006

17. Galen Buller's Day Off

Any doubts that City Hall's water officials live in fairyland were dispelled by two stories this week in the New Mexican. First we learned from reporter Andy Lenderman that this desiccated winter we have been enduring is in fact the driest since 1890, with a mere 0.27 inches of precipitation from November through February. A year ago the total was 5.45 inches -- 20 times greater. The snow pack we rely on to replenish the reservoirs is the lowest in a quarter century. Faced with what to the untrained eye looks like an environmental catastrophe, our top water expert, State Engineer John Antonio, can only advise that we "take short showers, check toilets for silent water leaks and avoid pre-rinsing dirty dishes."

But there is no need to worry, city water director Galen Buller assured reporter Tom Sharpe. The four new wells drilled in recent years at the Buckman field, down by the Rio Grande, have increased our capacity to produce water by 2 million gallons a day (produce -- as though we were synthesizing it from hydrogen and oxygen). The wells of course are just more straws in the same old aquifer, depth unknown, whose level has fallen precipitously since pumping began in the early 1970s.

No less discouraging was Mr. Buller's Plan B: to get the Canyon Treatment Plant, which has been shut down for a major upgrade, back online in time for summer watering season. It was somewhat reassuring to hear that the reservoirs are more than half full. But if all goes as planned, that water will be pumped into the pipelines without a trickle spared for the river bed. The result: more dead cottonwoods -- chainsaw sculptures -- and an ever greater chance of a catastrophic Upper Canyon bosque fire. The Forest Service can thin all the pines it wants from the mountain watershed. Without water in the river below Nichols Dam, a single cigarette tossed from a car on Cerro Gordo or Canyon Road could hit the dried-up tinder like a gasoline bomb.

Most discouraging of all, Mr. Buller is still relying on the funny water math that purports to show that conservation has lowered Santa Fe's per capita consumption to an all-time low last year of 114 gallons a day. As noted here before, the arithmetic rests on assumptions that are at best educated guesses. Worse, the numbers fail to take into account that 2005 was the wettest of the last seven years. Of course water useage was way down. What else would anyone expect? Conservation efforts must have helped. A little, a lot -- no one knows. There is simply no way to justify City Hall's stubborn insistence that plumbing retrofits have been so effective that all the new lot splits, rezonings, and subdivisions are creating not a drop of extra demand.

And so the city continues to hand out building permits and approve one development after another. This week it began demolishing Sweeney auditorium to build a new convention center, while the Archdiocese of Santa Fe continued to press its plans for a three-story "neighborhood" and shopping complex downtown, on the very spot where it paved over paradise -- Archbishop Lamy's five-acre gardens. But Mr. Buller tells us to be of good cheer. According to an educational flier distributed by his office, it is a "myth" that the water saved by letting our xeriscapes wither is going to more development.

This was the year, remember, that we were supposed to get our parks back. Barring some mighty blizzards this spring and an early monsoon, the new council and mayor may finally have to make a decision: Who gets the water? Us or them.

March 8, 2006

18. Forgive and Forget

I had meant to spend the morning writing a postmortem -- as straight down the middle as I could make it -- of yesterday's mayoral and city council elections. The coverage last night on public-access TV had been an inspiration, with the commentators' happy banter sounding as though they were talking about floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. So much of what is right and wrong about Santa Fe was there in that friendly, amateur-hour telecast from City Hall: the close family ties, the absence of cynicism, the naive belief that every candidate -- even those backed by the biggest real estate money in town -- are just simple citizens volunteering for their turn at civic duty.

And that is about as far as I got when I started noticing hit after hit on my webserver. An email from Inez Russell at the New Mexican alerted me to the cause -- my Tom Ford webcam had been featured on something called Gawker.com. Build it and they will come -- from poloralphlauren.com, metmuseum.org, playboy.com, newyorkmag.com, hbo.com, timeinc.com, nydailynews.com, avon.com. Even worldbank.org. There were numerous visits from advancemags.com (Vanity Fair, The New Yorker) and when Los Angeles awoke, disney.com. By 10 a.m. I had received more than 600, what I might get in a busy month. By early afternoon the count had easily passed a thousand.

Sadly Mr. Ford's giant crane is not working today, so I suspect that many of the gawkers went away disappointed. But for awhile it was eerie knowing that the world was peering through the little camera I had set on my bookshelf, at the hill across the street where a famous man I had never heard of will be coming to live.

It was mammoth hilltop mansions like his and Andrew Davis's (described earlier on this page) that were supposed to have the voters out in droves yesterday to defeat development-friendly candidates. Common wisdom has it that the balance on the council may indeed have shifted, by a single vote, in favor of slower growth. I am not so sure, but will think more about it as the old Macintosh G3 beneath my desk keeps grinding away, serving up an image every 30 seconds of Mr. Ford's hill.

George Johnson

March 12, 2006

19. Election Post-Mortem

Whoever had won last week's mayoral election, Santa Fe was in for a change. As an analysis this morning by reporter Tom Sharpe reminds us, the city is losing a mayor, Larry Delgado, who felt no obligation to return calls from reporters -- or from constituents, unless they belonged to Amigos del Alcalde, the group of business and development buddies who paid for his frequent trips abroad. Even the joke candidate, Don-Juan Coventrello, promised to be more responsive.

Less certain is the effect of the election on water and land-use issues. For four years, the council has been split down the middle, with the mayor stepping in to break the tie in favor of real estate interests. That is what happened during the 2002 drought when an effort to delay new construction was derailed and replaced by the much weaker plumbing retrofit ordinance -- which has saved some water but allowed building to continue unimpeded. It happened again when regulations were weakened to ease the way for the in-fill development that is straining the infrastructure of the historic districts and degrading their charm.

The old lineup looked like this, with the pro-development bloc on the left:

David Pfeffer (District 1) Patti Bushee (District 1)
Rebecca Wurzburger (District 2) Karen Heldmeyer (District 2)
Matthew Ortiz (District 4) Miguel Chavez (District 3)
Carol Robertson Lopez (District 4) David Coss (District 3)
Larry Delgado (mayor)

Now Mr. Pfeffer is gone, replaced by Chris Calvert, who was backed by voters who want slower growth. On the other side of the ledger, however, Councilor Coss's seat was picked up by Carmichael Dominguez, whose unsuccessful run in 2004 was funded by the Chamber of Commerce, Santa Fe Grassroots, and some of the biggest developers in town. (It was Dominguez, remember, who did the James Watt imitation: "Mother Nature gives us water to use; she did not give it to us to manipulate it and to use fear to try and support a no-growth agenda." If the new District 4 councilor, Ron Trujillo, lines up with Councilors Dominguez, Ortiz, and Wurzburger, that would mean another 4 to 4 logjam. (updated 3/15/06: The council would be in the same deadlock if Ms. Lopez wins the recount she has requested.) But Mr. Coss, now the mayor, would break the tie in a different direction.

Or so the theory goes. Organizations sometimes react to perturbations by recrystallizing in unexpected ways. Ms. Wurzburger, who wants to be mayor someday, might sense that her political future no longer lies with her colleagues in the construction industry, while Mr. Coss, coming from a blue-collar district and backed by organized labor, may find himself sympathizing with the argument that construction provides jobs. Many voters were surprised that one of his biggest contributions was from Rancho Viejo. Had he not been running against a developer and a realtor, the limited-growth forces might not have found him so clear a choice.

Whatever the outcome, this election was cleaner than the one in 2004. The new campaign reforms passed by the council made it clearer where the money was coming from, though there is already talk that the reforms may need reforming. Last time around, developer Donald Tishman deflected attention by funneling money through family members. This time, he described himself, with misleading honesty, as a professor at UNM.

George Johnson

March 14, 2006

As shown in the above chart, which records Internet traffic to the Santa Fe Review, interest in the Tom Ford webcam has spiked and plunged, but I have added another camera, pointed at the Andrew and Sydney Davis mansion, rising in the northern hills. Today two large yellow cranes are working away. The view of the house is particularly striking in the evening as it catches the light of the setting sun.

March 23, 2006

There is plenty of action today on the Tom Ford Webcam:

Meanwhile, the Davis cam is temporarily offline while we make use of its 500-millimeter zoom lens.

on to Part 20 . . .

Coming Soon: The Environmental Impact of Jennifer Jenkins


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