Despite concerns from environmentalists and downstream irrigators, the city of Santa Fe will begin the design and construction of a roughly 17-mile pipeline that would funnel treated wastewater back into the Rio Grande under a resolution approved by Mayor Alan Webber and city councilors Wednesday.
The governing body approved the proposed project, which will cost an estimated $20 million — or more, depending on infrastructure needs — on a 6-2 vote. The pipeline is part of a resolution calling for 40-year and 80-year water plans.
Councilors JoAnne Vigil Coppler and Renee Villarreal, who raised concerns about the process and what Vigil Coppler called a “rush” to make a decision, cast the dissenting votes.
Vigil Coppler said Wednesday’s council meeting was “really the first big discussion” she had been part of concerning the proposed pipeline.
“I’m not saying it is, but it feels like an end run,” Vigil Coppler said. “The reason it feels that way is because I was excited about a 40-year plan, but what we end up discussing is the pipeline. I think it’s a very important discussion, and I wish that it had been its own agenda item.”
Though the idea is decades-old, it was only recently that City Councilor Peter Ives included the proposed pipeline in the resolution calling for the water utility to develop long-range water plans.
“I feel like there’s still work to be done and that there’s still stakeholders that we need to meet with instead of moving forward with implementation and design of the construction of the pipeline,” said Villarreal, adding that the proposed project was of such high importance that it needed to be dealt with in a standalone resolution.
The mayor and others emphasized that the proposed project was in the early stages and that the city would need to obtain some 28 permits before the first “teaspoon” of dirt could be moved.
“Even if the council were to act on this now, nothing would happen right away except a lot more discussions,” Assistant City Attorney Marcos Martinez said. “The permitting would involve the state and the federal government. … Some kind of environmental assessment would have to be done.”
The pipeline project is intended to maximize Santa Fe’s 5,230-acre-feet-a-year share of San Juan-Chama Project water.
“What we’re trying to do with this project is, instead of sending [the treated wastewater the city doesn’t use] downstream, we are trying to capture it and keep it in our water supply system,” City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth, who co-sponsored the resolution, said in an interview Tuesday. “That’s what this infrastructure that we’re talking about would do, is it would divert the water back to the Rio Grande so we could pull more of that imported water.”
Jesse Roach, the city’s Water Division director, said 60 percent of all the water the city produces to potable standards ends up in the sewer at the Paseo Real Water Reclamation Facility near the Santa Fe Regional Airport.
“That’s the water we want to take advantage of to reuse,” he said.
The wastewater, which is treated to meet federal standards for discharge, is released into the Santa Fe River.
The proposed pipeline, which would flow from the south-side wastewater treatment plant to the Buckman Direct Diversion plant on the Rio Grande, would instead allow the city to release the treated effluent into the Rio Grande — and pull more water out of the river.
“We do that with return flow river credits,” Romero-Wirth said.
Roach told the governing body a 2015 Santa Fe Basin study that identified climate change as a major threat to the city’s water supply prompted the water utility to look for long-term solutions.
“The shortages were on the order of 9,000 acre-feet per year for the city and county combined by the 2050s,” he said. “That’s a significant number to us. Currently, our potable demand is about 10,000 acre-feet per year, so we are looking at shortages down the line.”
Potential population growth and wildfires in the watershed were other factors the utility considered.
“Essentially, what we’re trying to plan for as a utility is the what-if scenarios,” he said. “We’re trying to be prepared for, ‘What if we lose the watershed [to wildfire]? What if climate change impacts our water sources? And what if population growth increases our demands? How do we respond to those challenges?’ So, those are the challenges that led us to focus in on this.”
City Councilor Signe Lindell said the city needed to act quickly.
“We have an obligation to the future,” she said. “Time is not on our side right now, and climate change is undeniable to, I think, everyone on this governing body. … The clock is going tick, tick, tick, and the environment to do this is getting worse.”
In an interview earlier this week, Webber said the city hired a firm to conduct an analysis of alternatives for the city’s effluent. Among the options the firm studied were recharging the aquifer and direct potable reuse in which wastewater is recycled.
“The pipeline came out as the most cost-effective way to get us more water in the future,” the mayor said. “If we don’t do anything, we will face a water shortage no later than 2055, and it’s not very far out. If you think about the decision that our predecessors made to jack up the price of water so that we have one of the most water-conserving cities in America, this is our turn to step up and say, ‘We’re going to take the next step.’ ”