Low-water garden beauty is possible

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Originally published in the Santa Fe New Mexican on June 4th, 2017

  • Christine Y. Chavez/For The New Mexican

Growing up in Santa Fe, I realize I took so much for granted. I remember things like free skiing lessons in the schools, learning to drive in the snow, the annual drive up the mountain to see the changing aspens, and Friday-night gatherings at the Plaza with my friends. Having moved back here after 18 years of being away, I see how much I’ve missed. Santa Fe is a beautiful city. I am in awe every day of the sunrise and the sunsets, the beautiful mountains, the trees, the crazy cloud formations, and the clean mountain air mixed with hints of lilac, lavender and Spanish broom in my back yard.

Santa Fe is also a very water-conscious city, but that’s not reflected in the beautiful landscapes we have here in town. I have worked in water conservation for the last 10 years and I have seen many examples of “xeriscapes” — it is possible to have beautiful landscapes and still use very little water, and they don’t at all need to consist of only rock and cactus. I was so inspired on a garden tour at the hom of Reese Baker, who is the owner and founder of the RainCatcher Inc. here in Santa Fe. It was an amazing example of a lush back yard irrigated with greywater and captured rainwater and covered completely in plants and trees, most of them being edible. Beautiful microclimates were created, with play areas, a maze of paths with hidden swings and a treehouse, and the air was abuzz with the ecosystem he created there. On a very hot afternoon, I actually found myself wishing I had brought a sweater. It seemed to be 10 degrees cooler within the confines of his garden.

Santa Fe is known for its high water rates, but there’s always part of that story that gets misunderstood. If customers find themselves in Tier II water rates during our summer peak season, they will pay $21.72 per 1,000 gallons — but in order to get to Tier II, you have to use 10,000 gallons or more in a month. Most of the city’s residential customers are well below this range and pay $6.06 per 1,000 gallons, which is actually comparable to most water rates. Many customers understand that a beautiful back yard is certainly possible, but may require supplemental water resources in order to stay out of Tier II. We also have the Eye on Water app, which gives our customers complete control over staying out of Tier II rates. A threshold can be set to alert customers at any water-use target they’d like to meet.

All of these things are what I think make living and working on water in Santa Fe so unique. It’s so inspiring to be surrounded by so many people in the city who are motivated to save water in any way they can in their landscapes but still achieve beautiful results in their gardens. Every garden I have ever had in even the smallest capacity has brought me such joy. I have to admit that I’m also that person who graphs out my water bill every month to try to figure out how much water my apple tree is using. Such is the nature of the beast of my job, I guess.

Christine Y. Chavez has a background in water rights administration and energy and water conservation program management in the state of New Mexico. She is a graduate of New Mexico State University with a B.S. in environmental science and an M.S. in biology. Christine is the Water Conservation Manager for the City of Santa Fe. She may be reached at 505-955-4219 or cychavez@santafenm.gov.