Councilor Romero-Wirth: Building Resiliency During Megadrought

Originally published in the Santa Fe New Mexican

Recent headlines call out the dangerous megadrought facing communities across the West. While concern is warranted, here’s the good news: Santa Fe is better off now than it was 20 years ago. Building on the proactive water decisions made by city leaders before us, we are continuing to make smart investments in our water future.

Let’s start with some city water history. The first major infrastructure project in the 1930s increased reservoir storage. Next, the city established two wellfields to supplement our water supply. More recently, the city and county partnered in the construction of the Buckman Direct Diversion facility to divert our share of Colorado River water from the Rio Grande.

Perhaps the city’s greatest achievement is in water conservation, which remains the smartest and most sustainable water policy. Water rebate programs and our two-tier rate structure that ties higher prices to higher consumption have resulted in lower water use even with population growth. In 1995, annual city water demand was over 13,000 acre-feet. Twenty-five years later, city water demand is less than 9,000 acre-feet. Since 1995, our population grew by 25 percent while our water use declined by 30 percent.

City leaders anticipated the link between housing growth and water. Starting in 2009, developers were required to provide water for new development. Currently, new demand is offset through water conservation and the purchase of water rights transferred to the city. In the future, developers may be asked to pay a portion of the cost of infrastructure improvements to make sure water demand doesn’t outpace supply.

This work created a more sustainable system where we rely predominately on river or surface water, saving groundwater for periods of severe drought. A report to the governing body detailed renewable water supply from all city sources at approximately 12,000 acre-feet per year. In 2021, the city used about 8,700 acre-feet of water, 79 percent of which came from surface water or rivers.

The city is not in a water emergency. Our dedicated water managers explain that even if this drought continues, we do not expect to be in a water emergency in the near future. Long-range planning, continued conservation and a diversified portfolio with further infrastructure improvements already in the works, will enhance the resiliency and efficiency of our system.

In 2018, the governing body authorized 40- and 80-year water plans. Long-range planning will help us better understand future water demand and adaptation strategies to meet projected shortages.

Conservation is paramount. More efficiencies and savings can be realized. Our Water Conservation Committee is generating ideas for water savings from outdoor water use and the commercial sector. Conservation requirements for new multifamily housing development will soon be introduced for public debate and City Council consideration.

A subgroup of the city’s Water Conservation Committee and the county’s Water Policy Advisory Board is working together on a pilot to develop annual policy responses targeted to varying drought levels.

Finally, the San Juan-Chama return flow pipeline is currently under permit review. It will return the portion of the city’s effluent that originates as Colorado River water back to the Rio Grande to be reclaimed as a new source of supply at the Buckman facility. The city then can utilize fully its San Juan-Chama/Colorado River allocation. The result will be more groundwater recovery to restore springs and flows along the Santa Fe River while adding to our drought reserve supply.

The future will be drier. We’ve known it for a long time; we’ve been preparing for a long time. We continue to work for a secure and resilient water supply.

Carol Romero-Wirth is a second-term City Council member representing District 2. She chairs the City Water Conservation Committee and the Buckman Direct Diversion Board.