River History

History Along The Santa Fe River

It is a matter of debate whether the Santa Fe River was perennial throughout its length prior to the middle of the twentieth century. There is considerable evidence that the stream was fed by numerous springs through the historic plaza area, at Frenchy’s Park, Agua Fria, La Cieneguilla and in the Santa Fe Canyon above La Bajada. Spiegel and Baldwin (1963; the source for this section except as otherwise indicated) cite archaeological evidence that the four Native American pueblos that occurred along the river prior to founding of the City of Santa Fe in 1610 were located near perennial springs that better served their needs than the larger but more variable flow of the river. R.E. Twitchell, 1925 (cited in Spiegel and Baldwin) describes a tributary to the Santa Fe River called the Rio Chiquito, which had its source in a large spring in the Archbishop’s garden adjacent to the cathedral, and flowed down the present Water Street to a confluence with the Santa Fe River near the Santuario de Guadalupe. Twitchell gives numerous other examples of springs and marshes in the downtown area; several Santa Fe elders recall these wetlands being active well into the first half of the 20th century. All are now defunct, although several large buildings in the downtown area, including the PERA Building opposite the State Capitol, are forced regularly to pump groundwater out of their basements as a result of being constructed over “ghost springs”.

Descriptions of Santa Fe by 17th, 18th, and 19th-century European visitors refer to the Santa Fe River as a trout stream, and Santa Feans now in their forties and younger recall fishing in (and skating on!) the river. According to the hydrographic survey of 1914, the flow of the river at that time was diverted by at least 38 ditches to irrigate 1,267 acres at an average application rate of 4.5 acre-feet per acre, for a total of 5,701 acre-feet. The furthest upstream irrigated fields were in the area now occupied by the City’s McClure Reservoir; the furthest downstream were farms in La Bajada that are still under acequia-fed irrigation. This amount of irrigation argues that there was generally sufficient flow in the river throughout that long reach, to warrant the effort to divert it. At the same time, as early as 1716 it was reported that the flow of the Santa Fe River was insufficient to irrigate all of the cultivated acreage in every year.

Elder residents of Agua Fria speak of large cottonwoods and duck ponds in the riverbed that now carries only storm flows in its severely incised channel. Spiegel and Baldwin confirm these memories, noting “…partial ground-water barriers at Cieneguita (ed. note: now Frenchy’s Field) and Agua Fria at times cause the appearance of springs…” (p. 172). They further observe: “The early agricultural practices constituted an excellent form of artificial recharge of a part of the diverted water to the underlying aquifers because of ditch leakage and extensive water spreading. Despite the consumptive use by the irrigated fields, probably a larger proportion (possibly 30-50percent) of the streamflow reached the zone of saturation after irrigation began than did under natural conditions.”

All this suggests that flow in the Santa Fe River was probably interrupted from time to time between its spring-fed zones; but that under pre-development conditions the river had sufficient shallow groundwater to keep riparian vegetation alive and sufficient pools to serve as refugia for fish and obligate riparian wildlife, from the headwaters to La Bajada, even in the driest years. Below La Bajada, the evidence for springs and frequent flow is much sketchier than for the upstream section of the river.

The regular dewatering of the Santa Fe River seems to have begun in the late 1940s, when water demand in the City began to approach the supply available from the reservoirs above town. Five wells were installed near the Santa Fe River; they supplied 68% of the City’s drinking water in 1951, and from that point forward served as an important supplemental water source, and occasionally (until the Buckman well field was brought on line in 1972) the major source for the City (CDM&LWA, 1998). In addition to the City’s riverside wells, there has been a tremendous proliferation of domestic and other permitted wells within the Santa Fe watershed. A search of the State Engineer Office well record data base for wells in the Santa Fe watershed, performed on August 16, 2001, resulted in 3,566 wells. (This is probably an undercount, since only township, range and section was used to define the search, so that records with descriptions in terms of x,y coordinates were not accessed.)

Pindi and Agua Fria Schoolhouse Pueblos

By the twelfth century, the Agua Fria area of Santa Fe was home to two pueblo style settlements now known as the Pindi and the Agua Fria School house pueblos. These two pueblos were larger than any other settlement in the Santa Fe area. To learn more, click here to visit the New Mexico Office of the State Historian for an article on the pueblos, Two 13th-Century Settlements in Santa Fe, New Mexico,
by Jason S. Shapiro, Ph.D