Leaving Water in the River

When Lissa and I were up in Santa Fe a few months back, I took along the binoculars and took a walk along the Santa Fe River as it passes the old city’s downtown, hunting birds. I found few. Because it’s not much of a river, really.

As David Groenfeldt notes, there’s an effort underway to change that, but it’s an odd one:

Two weeks ago here in Santa Fe, our City Council voted to keep the Santa Fe River flowing a little bit through this very dry Spring and Summer. This is path-breaking for a river designated in 2007 as the Most Endangered River in America. The City has other sources of water (including a new $250m pipeline from the nearby Rio Grande) so it is not losing anything by being generous, but in the words of Councilwoman Patti Bushee, it is an important symbolic effort: “When do we recognize that some of the water belongs to the river?”

This is a great example of the way we sort out competing values surrounding water here in the arid West. The dominant value has long been consumptive – using water for farms and cities. Rivers themselves, and the ecosystems that surround them, have been left behind. I’m not arguing this is good or bad. It’s simply reflective of the values of the people making the decisions.

Water for rivers themselves is a different set of values, and increasingly we’re seeing efforts to accommodate those values as well. In Santa Fe, they’ve done this in part by developing, as Groenfeldt notes, “new sources of water”, which means a $250 million pipeline and treatment system to pump water uphill from the Rio Grande to meet the city’s water supply needs. That water, in turn is being imported via the San Juan-Chama Project from the headwaters of the San Juan, in the Colorado River Basin. So less water for the Colorado River Basin, in part, allows water to be left in the Santa Fe River.