The Santa Fe Watershed Association and the community of Santa Fe won a significant victory recently with the passage of the Target Flow for a Living River Ordinance on February 29th, 2012. After more than a decade, and five years of intense advocacy by SFWA, a standing-room only audience witnessed a “watershed moment” when the City Council unanimously voted to by-pass 1,000 acre feet of water into the Santa Fe River on wet or normal years. We view this as a giant first step to reviving the Santa Fe River from the dry ditch that we often see and have seen for years, to a flowing, vibrant perennial stream that brings life to our community.
Our continuing dream is a fully flowing, meandering, tree-lined stream where children can play, and which all of us can enjoy. The beauty of this river will also have a practical side. The restored river and its tributary arroyos will retain more water during floods and keep more water in the aquifer where it can be recovered through wells. Ultimately, a healthy river system would deliver water all the way to the Rio Grande.
Why A Living River?
A living river is a highly desirable “waterscape” for downtowns across the nation. It also serves to cool an urban area suffering from the “heat-island” effect. A flowing river recharges the underground aquifer which becomes our primary source of water during droughts. A living river provides benefits for plants and wildlife too, which in turn enriches our human quality of life. The economic benefits are difficult to quantify but they are real enough that countries from Australia to South Africa to Spain prohibit the dewatering of rivers.
Also of crucial import is the agricultural community downstream of Santa Fe on the lower end of the watershed. This traditionally Hispanic area has cultivated food for the last 400 years, and continues to do so, perpetuating the traditional acequia system to irrigate their crops. They rely upon water from the river which mostly is sourced from the City’s waste-water treatment facility.
The Santa Fe Watershed Association was part of the core working group formed by the City of Santa Fe to discuss the water by-pass schedule for the Living River Ordinance. We organized a letter-writing campaign, published op-eds in the paper, and mobilized residents to attend and testify at the public hearing the night of the decision.
Another way to find more water for our river is through conservation. While it is true that Santa Fe water customers have been doing a better job each year with water conservation, there is much more that could be done. Around the country, cities are using less water per capita than they did just five years ago, thanks to increasing awareness about simple ways to conserve water, such as low-flush toilets, improved shower heads, etc. Here are additional ways to gain greater impact on water conservation:
1. Rooftop water harvesting. Many cities are capturing water before it becomes stormwater. This can provide a valuable substitute for using City water for landscaping. Since landscape irrigation accounts for a big portion of peak summer demand — which is also when the river is most in need of water for its environmental health — capturing and storing roof-top water can be an important part of meeting the river’s water needs.
2. Improved landscape water use. Santa Fe gardens use a lot more water than they need to, even to meet their often questionable objectives of looking like a garden somewhere other than in the arid Southwest! There are many small ways of saving water in the garden, which add up to significant savings. The Water Division’s site on Water Conservation Demonstration Gardens gives lots of ideas.
3. More efficient household appliances that use water. Of course your toilet is low-flow, but are you using a front-loading washer? Are you using the shortest cycle on your dishwasher? Does your shower heat up instantly [Mine doesn't...!]? Appliances you use every day can yield considerable water savings.
4. Water re-use. From dumping the pan of dish water on the plants, to configuring your septic tank to convert black water to grey water and connecting it all to a drip irrigation system, there is a world of creativity awaiting you in the challenge of re-using water. The more times water can be re-used within the home and garden, the less water you will need from the City water supply and the more water will be available for our thirsty river. You can find many ideas about water re-use, and other conservation tips, from the Blueprint for Santa Fe.
For an overview of the City’s long-term plan for water conservation, see the Water Conservation Office’s website, Save Water Santa Fe.
Water Rights for the Santa Fe River
One way people are dealing with environmental flow for rivers is in the concept of purchasing water rights. This concept has been applied throughout the West in some form or other. These experiences are outlined in a report from Trout Unlimited, entitled, “Liquid Assets.” Click here to read this report.
Learn more about environmental flow
Environmental Flows Network Newsletter, produced by the International Water Management Institute, IUCN, TNC, and other environmental and water organizations, connects the disparate people who are working on this topic.
“A Collaborative and Adaptive Process for Developing Environmental Flow Recommendations,” a recent article by B. Richter et al. published in River Research and Application
Desert’s Rivers Can Be Revived, an op-ed piece by Melissa Lamberton in The Arizona Daily Star, highlights the experience of South Africa and its relevance to Arizona (and by implication, to New Mexico as well).
FLOW – The Essentials of Environmental Flows, published in 2003 by the Water and Nature Initiative of IUCN – The World Conservation Union. This site provides the publication as a free download, along with other information and links regarding the economics of living rivers.