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Santa Fe plan would put effluent in the Rio Grande as withdrawal offset

SANTA FE — City government has a plan to get the most out of the roughly 5,000 acre feet of water it is allocated through the San Juan-Chama Project by building a $20 million pipeline from to the city’s south-side wastewater treatment plant to the Buckman Direct Diversion on the Rio Grande.

“This is what I call the low hanging fruit,” Jesse Roach, the city’s water division director, said of what is being called the Buckman Return on Tuesday during the first of two community input meetings scheduled for this week at the Fogelson Library on the former campus of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. “It’s the next-best source of water for our community.”

But the plan also would reduce flows for communities south of town who now depend on effluent from the wastewater treatment plant to provide downstream flows in the Santa Fe River that reach La Cienega and the Cochiti area.

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Effluent coming from the Santa Fe wastewater treatment facility flows along the Santa Fe River south of town. A city government proposal to take more San Juan-Chama water from the Rio Grande calls for a pipeline to send effluent to the river to offset the additional San Juan-Cham withdrawals. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The city already has four water sources: the Rio Grande, two reservoirs in the Sangre de Cristo foothills, the Buckman wells outside the city limits and wells in town. But a 2015 study warned that the city’s water sources are susceptible to long-term drought, the effects of climate change, wildfires and contamination.

Roach said building a pipeline would allow the city to take more San Juan-Chama water — which is piped from the Colorado River basin into New Mexico — from the Rio Grande and replace the increase with an equal amount of reused effluent water. That would reduce the need to pump groundwater from the wells and promote recharging of the area aquifer.

The proposal was presented as part of public meeting, which was also designed to gather input from community members.

But environmental groups have concerns about the proposal and say that the city should slow down the process and consider other options.

Denise Fort, a volunteer with the Sierra Club, said the city has already made up its mind.

“Decide, announce, defend. That’s their strategy,” she said adding that the pipeline is already a “done deal.”

“Now they’re trying to catch up with questions from citizens,” she said. “This is a very large project being pushed through without a legitimate planning process.”

She said the city’s plan will mean that water in the Santa Fe River that normally flows south would be diminished for farmers in the La Cienega area that use it to irrigate their fields.

The Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians are urging the city the slow down and consider other options, like increasing aquifer storage, water recovery and the direct reuse of potable water. They say the plan would reduce flow in the lower Santa Fe River by as much as half and reduce water quality in the Rio Grande.

“We have concerns about attempting to make the city more reliant on San Juan-Chama water,” said Neil Williams, another Sierra club volunteer with a background in engineering. “We’d prefer to have drought storage in Santa Fe, rather than imported water from the Rio Grande.”

City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth said the meeting Tuesday and another on Thursday are intended to hear the public’s concerns.

“The step right now is to hear from the public,” she said.

But she said the City Council could vote on the proposal to build the pipeline before the end of the calendar year.

The second public meeting on the proposed project is to be held from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Fogelson Library.

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