The deluge of July 2018 — an epic storm that inundated parts of Santa Fe — was significant enough to bring the Federal Emergency Management Agency into town for relief. Another similar event will assuredly occur someday, perhaps soon.
Stormwater is a public nuisance that can create millions in damage within minutes.
At least, that has been our historical perspective. Pictures from the early 1900s show people and buggies crossing a 100-yard-wide expanse of sandy slopes at Guadalupe Street with a trickle down the middle. Water Street got its name from the water that crept up the banks and frequently flooded the street during spring runoff and monsoon flashes.
The sensible solution was to build a nicely engineered modern channel that could efficiently get it away from downtown and out yonder by Agua Fría village. The result was an ever-increasing gouging of the meandering natural river into roaring canyons of whitewater.
An imaging tool known as light detection and radar, or LIDAR, can look through buildings and vegetation to create super accurate topographic details, and it reveals our watershed to have the perfect symmetry and detail of a leaf — with all the microflows increasingly gathering into one central stem of the river.
What’s also clear is that as growth has occurred, with every new building and impervious surface created, one mantra seems to have prevailed: Get this water off my property as fast as possible and let someone else worry about the consequences downstream.
That paradigm is shifting. A new thinking is coming forward for the city to consider. Simply put, it would look at stormwater as a precious — and wasted — asset, not a nuisance.
The great work of Melissa McDonald, the city’s river watershed coordinator, along with the support and facilitation of former City Councilor Rosemary Romero, is about to go through the city approval process. It deserves support. But it’s going to cost money, and somebody must pay.
Right now, city water bills have surcharges on them for stormwater management. For a typical household, it’s $3 a month. That fee is based on the home’s 5/8-inch water meter. A commercial project is likely to have a 1½-inch meter and pay $15, five times more per month. Seems fair.
Except the size of a water meter has zero correlation to how much stormwater is created on a property. The reality is that commercial developments, and their antiquated code demands for excessive paved parking, have an impact on stormwater runoff that is 25 times that of a home, not five times.
When impacts like that are contemplated by development, one can be assured development will find a way to mitigate stormwater runoff. It really isn’t rocket science. It’s cost.
The new plan considers the need for a series of small bonds over the next decade to fix things wiped out or damaged in last year’s micro-flood with macro-damage. “Micro” because the city’s water storage reservoirs got virtually no rain from that event.
It also involves assessing stormwater management fees for commercial properties based on an equivalent residential unit of 2,800 square feet of impervious surfaces on a lot. A commercial project with 70,000 square feet would pay 25 times the ERU. That’s a lot of money.
But capturing, treating and reusing saved water can be incentivized by city programs currently rewarding innovative water reuse schemes with significant rebates and fee waivers.
Win. Win. Win. Win. The city collects fees for bond payments from commercial entities paying more. The commercial entity is rewarded with incentives for water reuse. The city provides less potable water to the project. Stormwater stays on-site. Water from the sky that hits our roofs is the best water — clean and free. Let’s use it.
Kim Shanahan is a longtime Santa Fe builder and former executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association.