Santa Fe Water Supply Study: A dry future? Water managers say plans to keep taps flowing are underway

Contractors continue to make repairs to the dam and new incline intake structure at McClure Reservoir on October 13, 2015. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Contractors continue to make repairs to the dam and new incline intake structure at McClure Reservoir on October 13, 2015. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — A recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation sees Santa Fe’s water supply as inadequate to meet future needs. But local water managers still see the glass as half full.

According to a study of the Santa Fe Basin, by 2055, the city-county water system that serves residents of the capital city and northern Santa Fe County would come up about 5,155 acre-feet of water per year short – “the amount of water that provides for more than 20,000 people,” the report states.

“When climate change scenarios were incorporated into the study, water shortfalls between 6,342 acre-feet to 9,323 acre-feet per year were projected,” according to the report, released in August.

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But it’s not all doom and gloom, says Claudia Borchert, director of Santa Fe County’s utilities division. The report also identifies measures that can be taken to avoid a shortfall, including increased water conservation, direct injection and infiltration for aquifer storage and recovery, and purchasing additional water rights.

And Santa Feans may have to get over the yuck factor of using recycled wastewater as drinking water, as is taking place in other communities around the country. Officials say the Santa Fe already has a treatment facility equipped to turn sewage inflow into potable water.

“All of these things that are pointed out in the basin study that we need to do are already in the plans,” she said. “What this study highlights is we need to do more of it, and potentially do it sooner.”

Borchert said the basin study comes on the heels of other studies that have led the county and city of Santa Fe to begin addressing the area’s future water supply. And more studies are to come.

“We want to build on our past successes and are actively looking at what programs can implemented to increase water conservation, reuse water and develop sound groundwater use strategies,” she said. “Reclaimed water is being addressed through an additional study that will identify alternatives, costs, and the pros and cons.”

The Buckman Direct Diversion's first pumping station next to the Rio Grande. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Buckman Direct Diversion’s first pumping station next to the Rio Grande. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Santa Fe Basin study is the first one the Bureau of Reclamation has completed for a basin in New Mexico, though Dagmar Llewellyn, a hydrologist with the bureau’s water management division, said the aim is to conduct similar studies throughout the western United States. Another basin study is already underway for the Pecos Basin, she said.

The studies take into consideration water supply and demand, with demand determined by population projections.

The Santa Fe Basin study looked at population projections for 40 years down the road, aligning with the county’s 40-year water plan. The study projects the population of the area served by the water system to increase by 80 percent between now and 2055.

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The city’s population, now about 70,000, is expected to increase to approximately 125,000 people, according to the report. Taking into account another nearly 45,000 county residents, about 170,000 people would be served by the water system.

To estimate future demand, the study uses the current average per-capita water use of 114 gallons per day – among the lowest rates in the nation – as the baseline for demand projections.

Llewellyn said the question raised by this and other studies is what needs to be done to meet future demand. “The purpose of the basin study program is to develop adaptation strategies,” she said. “From the point where we’ve developed adaptations for Santa Fe, we’re hoping to develop strategies for the entire Rio Grande.”

Llewellyn said that, while the report paints a dire picture of the availability of water in the Santa Fe Basin decades down the road, “We’re optimistic that, for Santa Fe, we can come up with a reasonable plan.”

The Santa Fe River may be small, but it’s an important part of the city’s water supply. Here, river water falls over a gauging station at McClure Reservoir earlier this week. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Santa Fe River may be small, but it’s an important part of the city’s water supply. Here, river water falls over a gauging station at McClure Reservoir earlier this week. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Tapping sources, creating new ones

One thing Santa Fe has going for it is that it can draw water from multiple sources.

“In our role as water managers, we certainly want to prepare for the worst in planning for the future to make sure we have a safe and sufficient water supply,” said Bill Schneider, water resources coordinator with the city of Santa Fe. “While the outlook may be less than ideal, we have redundancy in our system.”

That allows water managers to rely more on one source when another is diminished, as was the case last year when there was a shortage of so-called San Juan-Chama water, which is piped from the Colorado River drainage into New Mexico and first held at Heron Lake near Tierra Amarilla on its way down the Chama River to the Rio Grande.

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The Santa Fe area gets its water from three surface-water supply sources – the Santa Fe Watershed, county water rights on the upper Rio Grande and the imported water from the San Juan-Chama project – and from well fields within the city limits and at the Buckman well field 10 miles west of the city near the Rio Grande.

The city and county took an important step in securing the area’s water supply future by constructing the $180 million state-of-the-art Buckman Direct Diversion water treatment facility on the Rio Grande that went online to take water from the river in January 2011.

“It didn’t come cheaply,” Schneider said. “Buckman was a significant investment, but it has provided us with a new source of supply and allows us to rest our well fields. By resting the wells, we allow them to recharge.”

The study notes that the aquifers from which groundwater is pumped are slow to recharge. Schneider said the groundwater supply can be thought of as a “drought reserve” that can be tapped during times when the other sources are providing less than they normally do.

“Think of it as a bank. We can use it in times of need,” he said.

As noted in the study, “supplies from the Santa Fe River, the Upper Rio Grande and the tributaries to the San Juan River are all limited, highly variable, and dependent on seasonal snowpack and runoff conditions.”

As it is, Schnieder said the city-county water system is getting by using 80 percent or 90 percent surface water.

The surface water sources serving the city of Santa Fe area are fairly balanced. Both the upper Rio Grande and San Juan-Chama Project water is diverted through the Buckman facility on the river. The contract with the city allocates 5,230 acre-feet per year of the San Juan-Chama water to the city, while 1,325 acre-feet of it is the county’s.

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The city gets almost the same amount from the Santa Fe River Watershed, 5,040 acre-feet per year, that is stored at the city-owned and -operated McClure and Nichols reservoirs. Currently, the reservoirs are supplying little water to the city while aging intake valves are being replaced. Because of the redundancy in the water system, the city can get by using water flowing through the Buckman facility and by tapping the “banked” groundwater.

The city has the right to extract about 4,865 acre-feet per year from the in-city well field, including the Osage, Northwest, St. Michael’s and several others.

The Buckman well field consists of 13 wells with a capacity of 10,000 acre-feet per year, but pumping is limited to 3,000 acre-feet per year under management restrictions, which take into account sustainable yields.

City officials expect the work on the McClure and Nichols reservoirs to be completed in time to catch the spring runoff. Water from those reservoirs flows to the Canyon Road Water Treatment Plant.

Nichols Reservoir is refilling after repairs to the dam were completed. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Nichols Reservoir is refilling after repairs to the dam were completed. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Recycling water from ‘toilet to tap’

While acquiring additional water rights is mentioned in the study as a way the Santa Fe system can increase supply, Schneider said that method is less than ideal. It just shifts water rights from one place to another. “Nobody wins if you have that shift,” he said.

It’s better to look for new sources and the Buckman facility can provide that by treating waste water.

“In the case of Santa Fe, we have such a cutting-edge treatment facility, we already have that technology in place,” Schneider said.

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The county’s Borchert concurred.

“Addressing how we reuse and recycle water is another big part of this,” she said. “From a technical perspective, treating water back to potable standards is very doable.”

Borchert said cities like El Paso are already working toward doing it by building an $82 million advanced water treatment plant designed to accomplish direct reuse by bringing water “from the toilet to the tap.” The city expects it can save 100 million gallons of water per day that otherwise would be discharged back into the Rio Grande.

Las Vegas, Nev., is one of the leaders in water reuse. According to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, about 40 percent of its total water supply comes from water that’s reused over and over again. An Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet indicates that, through reuse and conservation efforts, Las Vegas’ annual water consumption decreased by nearly 26 billion gallons, despite a population increase of 400,000 between 2002 and 2009, and 40 million visitors each year.

Borchert credited the city of Santa Fe for already using treated effluent for irrigation. She said about one-third of the water to used to irrigate parks is reused water.

City Councilor Peter Ives recently introduced a resolution that calls for staff to take measures to develop a rainwater harvesting and water catchment program. The idea is to create another additional water source by capturing rainwater and storm runoff that could be put to use for irrigation, toilet flushing and other non-potable uses.

Mario Pinedo, with RMCI, grouts the new incline intake structure at McClure Reservoir on October 13, 2015. The concrete tunnel is one of the improvements being made to Santa Fe's largest reservoir. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Mario Pinedo, with RMCI, grouts the new incline intake structure at McClure Reservoir on October 13, 2015. The concrete tunnel is one of the improvements being made to Santa Fe’s largest reservoir. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Everyone seems to agree the most important thing water managers can do to prepare for the future is collaborate. The Bureau of Reclamation’s Santa Fe Basin study – which was funded by the city and county governments, and included contributions from CDM Smith, an engineering firm specializing in water, environmental and energy issues, and Sandia National Laboratories – is an example of that.

Because of climate change, there is no new normal, Llewellyn said. But she’s optimistic that Santa Fe can adapt to changing conditions. “Climate change is a continuing process. Each decade is tougher than the one before, so we have to work together and develop new technologies as we go,” she said. “If we build a community of collaboration, we can all work out solutions to these problems.”

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