Once again, a proposed housing project is controversial for all the same reasons: traffic, height, density, affordability and water. Always the water. Where’s it coming from?

For those new to Santa Fe, including some city staff, there may be an ignorance about our history of cold-eyed practicality regarding water availability — particularly as it applies to growth and equity.

We figured this out 20 years ago when we instituted a policy that says no new construction can occur that adds new aggregate demand on the city’s water supply. And in 20 years of growth, none has. That bears repeating: None of our growth in 20 years has increased aggregate demand on our water supply. None.

That should be on a Zoom screen at every public hearing to remind people of our water reality.

So how can we grow and not increase water demand?

It is so because of the water bank. Twenty years ago, the city spent a million bucks and bought 10,000 Japanese toilets, the best 1.6-gallon flushers at the time. Then they made them free to anyone on a first-come, first-served basis. Boom! They went in weeks.

This was only a few years after 1996, when 1.6-gallon flushers became the national worst-case standard. The vast majority of Santa Fe toilets then used 3.5 to 5 gallons with every flush.

The immediate drop in aggregate water demand was profound. The savings was equivalent to the usage of thousands of homes. It would take that many new ones getting built before aggregate demand grew to what it had been before the toilet giveaway.

It was the first deposit into the city’s newly created water bank, one that receives credits when water is saved. That first deposit of water is why no affordable homes have paid for offset water credits for 20 years. They’ve been using the water credits from the quantity the city saved when it gave away the toilets.

What followed the giveaway was the infamous toilet retrofit program that lasted until virtually every toilet in town was switched to low flow. The number of retrofit credits builders were required to buy from the water bank in order to get a building permit represented more saved water than what was actually used in new, water-efficient homes. That meant the saved gallons in the water bank grew even as new homes came online.

The second genius of Santa Fe water policy was its invention of the Water Efficiency Rating Score, which homebuilders use to predict how much water a new home is expected to use. On a zero-to-100 scale, in which 100 is a home built to 2006 building codes, Santa Fe builders use the rating score to show they can get a 70 or lower, the score mandated by Santa Fe’s residential building code.

But what about apartments? They are commercial projects and not subject to single-family residential energy and water-efficiency codes. That should change immediately and could with a simple action of the City Council.

Apartments are inherently more water efficient than homes with yards, but we aren’t now predicting their usage nor do we have any means to demand a better measured prediction for efficiency.

Before former city employees Dalinda Bangert and Katherine Mortimer, members of the rating score development team, left the city, they produced a version for multifamily apartments. It never found a champion on the City Council or with the administration and now languishes, gathering dust.

Pass the multifamily Water Efficiency Rating Score and ratchet it so low it incentivizes stormwater and rainwater capture and reuse. That’s where the water is coming from.

Kim Shanahan has been a Santa Fe green builder since 1986 and a sustainability consultant since 2019. Contact him at shanafe@aol.com.

(26) comments

Paul Davis

On a technical note: although it obviously would save much less water than the move from 3-5 gallon flushes to 1.6 gallon flushes, everyone should know about the wonders of the current generation of 0.8 gallon flush toilets. I installed a Niagara pressure-assist flush toilet last year after being tired of how poorly the 2.4 gallon flush unit functioned. The new unit flushes better than any toilet I have ever used, with only 1/3rd of the water use of our old one. Other companies also make similar toilets, which use the tank refill cycle to build up pressure that is then later used to assist the flush.

It probably is not worth it for the city to pay for a switch from 1.6g to 0.8g, but anyone who had their doubts about how well such a low flow toilet could work should take heart: this technology is here and it is amazing.

Khal Spencer

Friend of ours has one of those pressurized low flow toilets in her house in Albuquerque. Amazing efficiency but first thing that crossed my mind was "do those pressure vessels ever fail?

Paul Davis

Heh. You mean like the existing flapper seals on a normal tank fail? Or like the refill valve in a normal tank fails? :)

I didn't attempt to take the one in our toilet apart, but I poked around a bit, and the overall concept seems pretty simple, almost as simple as the flap/float system in a conventional tank. No moving parts, and the pressure involved seems fairly low (obviously limited by your incoming water pressure).

Khal Spencer

Oh Shrapnel! Exploding Toilets Create Hidden Danger In Bathroom


Paul Davis

Just to clarify, the Niagara toilets actually don't use a pressure-assist but instead a "vacuum assist". No pressure tank. Details are here: https://niagaracorp.com/resource-library/technology/stealth/

They now have a dual flush 05g/0.95g system too.

No, I do not work for Niagara :)

Khal Spencer


Stephen Hauf

My apartment complex does not allow individual water metering, so there no incentive for residents to conserve water. Even though I take a five minute or less showers thrice a week , only use the ancient highly inefficient dishwasher with full loads. ( about thrice per week) - I still pay for any lack of water conservation by my neighbors. My apartment complex annually increases my flat rate water bill when I renew my lease, so I know that there is little if any water conservation going on at my apartment complex.

Kim Shanahan

New apartments can individually meter and bill each apartment's usage. The San Mateo condo apartments did so when they were remodeled over 15 years ago.

Paul Davis

I don't know what water rates look like in the city, but in the small municipal water association that supplies my home, I would say that even WITH individual water metering, there is almost no financial incentive to conserve water.

My wife and I typically use around 1000 gallons a month, unless we are irrigating the fruit trees on our property (which we did not plant). The marginal cost of this is a little over a dollar. We could double or even quadruple our water usage and the financial impact would be completely ignorable.

How water can be so cheap in a land where it is more or less the most precious resource there is feels quite confusing to me. I know that when there are discussions about raising our water rates, there are arguments about how much it will affect certain families (despite the supposed ban on using that water for irrigation). I don't want to be callous, but if an extra dollar or three per month is the difference between someone's financial viability or failure, I think they likely face deeper problems than the (incredibly) low cost of water here.

I don't know what the cost of water ought to be, but something tells me that it should at least approach the costs seen in parts of the country where it is not in short supply.

MJ Paul

When Webber formed the Advancing Affordable Housing and Livable Neighborhoods Advisory Group he packed the group with people representing the development and homeless community and didn’t allow a broader participation from those representing water conservation, neighborhoods negatively impacted by homeless programming, neighborhood representation on livable neighborhoods, and people capable of estimating the needs and financial costs of more infrastructure to support the increased development. It was and is a fatal flaw for Webber’s administration.

City time and resources spent on development that does not benefit people who live and work in Santa Fe but rather people moving into Santa Fe from somewhere else, while depleting our city’s resources and causing great long term harm to our quality of life in Santa Fe, is a massive failure.

The profoundly elementary statement that adding more housing supply in Santa Fe will ease housing pricing (in a national market) is so ignorant that it brings into question Webber’s leadership, the people he has surrounded himself with, and why he has not earned our vote for a second term.

Paul Davis

Implicit in what you've written here is the following claim:

* People moving to Santa Fe from elsewhere do not bring a benefit that outweighs the cost of them being here.

I'd suggest carefully mulling that thought over. If you really think it is true, then I suppose the followup questions might be:

* How is it that people moving to anywhere from anywhere else can ever bring more benefits than costs? Has this in fact ever worked anywhere, at any time?

* What is different about either Santa Fe, or the people moving here, or both, that somehow breaks the way that this works (or doesn't work) elsewhere?

* Is your perceived quality of life inextricably tied to people NOT moving here?

* What would someone from 50 years ago say about your quality of life, and what would they say when you told them what the current population of Santa Fe (or the county) was ?

MJ Paul

Yes, there certainly does seem to be people such as yourself that support a growth at all costs strategy and feel comfortable relying on the development industry with “There’s more water than you think” based on a strategy developed 20 years ago for retro fitting toilets. However I personally believe that we have greater intellectual capital available to our community for future planning on precious water resources and necessary infrastructure to support growth that allows our community to provide a high level of quality of life for all Santa Fe residents.

Paul Davis

I ABSOLUTELY do NOT support a growth at all costs strategy. I'm not actually sure whether I support growth at all - it seems to be a complex question, and I don't think the answer is at all clear. When my wife and I moved here, we deliberately bought an existing house that had been on the market for 3 years rather than building a new home on some undeveloped lot.

Khal Spencer

I think you are guilty of the straw man fallacy, MJ. I don't think Paul ever quite said that.

Its complicated. Short of mandatory sterilization, we are seeing population growth. Immigration is a relevant issue. It is a completely fair question for Americans to ask, if we should so want to ask, whether there is No Vacancy. Meanwhile, it has always been expected that people would move from one part of the country to another to look for jobs or a better way to live. It is, after all, the United States, not fifty separate states with passports.

Trying to build our way out of an influx of course encourages influx. Letting the market set the prices on a limited housing stock drives up prices and ensures many who are growing up here or who live here in the service industries will be priced out of the market while others, such as California migrants selling overinflated CA homes, can bid up prices. Gentrification is nothing unusual in the country. LANL is expanding pit production and that's driving a building boom in Bombtown. Not everyone who will be hired will be from here until we can supply enough advanced degrees in the STEM fields; these are searches in a national market. For example, LANL coaxed me away from the Univ. of Hawaii with, to quote Don Vito Corleone, making me an offer we could not refuse. In this case a benevolent one; I didn't see Luca Brasi hanging out by my laboratory in Honolulu. If you think prices are high here, you should have seen Honolulu. We were being hammered by debt. Government can make a mess out of a city with badly planned government housing projects. I've seen some of them. But to let the market drive it all similarly is painful. We need less income inequality. At some point, it will be "by any means neccesary" if you remember that line.

Water is another critical issue. I see Las Vegas, NV has just finally asked the state to ban decorative grasses since the water level in Lake Mead is critically low with no long term relief in sight. The government seems to own the water here, which I prefer to it being privatized. Government has to balance the needs of those who don't have a fat checkbook with a heavy club to disincentivize excess use. I think the tiered system Santa Fe uses is a good idea but to answer Paul's question, I have no idea how much water *should* cost. Should it cost the amount needed to provide the service? Should it be costed to penalize excess useage, to be defined by the city water authority in consultation with experts? Should cities use water as a cash cow?

I'll have to go back and re-read John Fleck's books.

MJ Paul

Well Khal, I felt the same straw man fallacy with Paul's comments "Implicit in what you've written here is the following claim:..." well no that was not implicit or claimed in my comment. Having traveled in over 80 countries world wide, I certainly do understand migration.

However the more focused conversation is on how community resources and land use regulations, funded by city taxpayers, are being utilized and if we are achieving our community goals. I don't think we are. The lack of a city strategy for managing water for future growth is deeply troubling, and was not a significant part of the mayor’s Advancing Affordable Housing and Livable Neighborhoods Advisory Group discussion. As a result, after every large development that is approved with significant variances from building codes, the question of water comes up and our city can’t articulate their plans.

Our community’s limited resources MUST be a significant part of any conversation for future development and how as a community we can best provide housing for current residents (with community resources) to support our teachers, police... who are being displaced.

With a background in economics I am also disturbed at the simplistic supply/demand arguments being made for housing/development by city leadership that’s based on bad and elementary assumptions and are not delivering the outcome people in our city are looking for. It’s simply not enough to quote statistics on development, when the development is not achieving our city’s goals while placing significant pressure on existing infrastructure and resources.

At no point did I suggest that no one should move to Santa Fe.

MJ Paul

Perhaps you yourself participated in the Advancing Affordable Housing Group as Daniel Werwath?

Do I believe that a more diverse group assembled on this issue would have provided better results for our community, YES I DO! We could start by having a coherent policy on what growth our community can support with water and what development characteristics actually provides value to our community in a more targeted approach rather than assuming that any and all development (and requiring variances for approval) is good for Santa Fe. Action on supporting infrastructure (yes it costs money) should also be in place as we need to have police, jobs, schools, traffic control, parking... to support development. This is not a no growth strategy, but a more balanced approach rather than throwing everything but the kitchen sink at development and leaving the fallout as a declining quality of life in Santa Fe.

If you are indeed Daniel Werwath, it speaks volumes on the poor results of the Advancing Affordable Housing group that requires you to troll comments on the New Mexican under an assumed name.

Paul Davis

(I can't reply to your down-thread reply, so I'll do it here)

You wrote:

"City time and resources spent on development that does not benefit people who live and work in Santa Fe but rather people moving into Santa Fe from somewhere else, while depleting our city’s resources and causing great long term harm to our quality of life in Santa Fe, is a massive failure."

My interpretation of this is fairly straight forward: development that benefits people moving here is (at least often) a net loss to the city. Perhaps you're leaving open the possibility that city time and resources could be spent on development that benefits both newcomers and those already here, but I didn't really get that feeling clearly from your overall post.

Hence my comment about what I felt/feel you're implicitly claiming.

MJ Paul

Santa Fe seems to be doing a remarkably good job at attracting people from outside of our state to move here or purchase a 2nd/3rd home or investment property. The real difficulty in our community is the displacement of people who are and have been living and working in Santa Fe and who can no longer afford housing and are being forced out. This is not a rhetorical debate, but rather a heart wrenching concern for city residents who are looking for solutions with effective use of tax payer dollars.

Paul Davis

You write as if this is a problem unique to Santa Fe, even though I am fairly sure you know it is isn't. There are numerous other communities (often similar in various ways to Santa Fe) that are having the exact same problems, though most of them do not face the immediate and long-term water issues that we do.

Although I think that water usage, median housing cost, and the availability of low cost housing are in some ways quite intertwined, there are many ways in which they are not (especially int cases where there's no new construction involved in someone moving here).

I don't think I've come across any examples of communities in the USA that have dealt with or are dealing with these problems successfully. The political/philosophical culture of this country prohibits strong-handed moves like real estate price limits, and the social culture is strongly against limits on migration (at least within the country).

So while you could be right that Webber's approach to this as mayor hasn't been very successful, it's not clear to me that anyone can point to policies and practices anywhere that are more successful.

As long as we live a society in which people can largely do whatever they want with their money, and largely move wherever they want, and where housing remains (as it always will, I think) a somewhat constrained resource, the problems with housing cost and availability are going to be issues anywhere that is or becomes desirable for those with money.

Do you have specific ideas for how this fundamental problem could be mitigated here (or anywhere, really) ?

Richard Reinders

Ask the people of the Aamodt Settlement that had 1/2 acre ft of water taken from them against their will if they think there is more water than they think. There will always be plenty of water if you take it from someone else. And as Khal said with global warming and drought you can't have water if mother nature doesn't give it to you.

Kim Shanahan

The Southwest is in the 21st year of a mega drought but, ironically, the precipitation rates are unchanged. The drought is from increasing heat, which evaporates snow and water in our reservoirs faster. If we can capture what falls on our roofs we'll need less from our public pipes.

Khal Spencer

There is no free lunch on that score. With more snowpack sublimating and warmer temperatures evaporating what falls, there is less groundwater, soil moisture, and thus less recharge in the river systems. I have barrels under all my canales, but that doesn't bring clouds to the sky.

katrin smithback

The precipitation records indicate that 2020 was the second driest year on record, i.e., the least precipitation. https://www.drought.gov/drought-status-updates/drought-update-intermountain-west It is true that warming has increased evaporation, adding to the extreme aridity that we're experiencing now. But precipitation is way below average.

Khal Spencer

There is not more water than you think. There may be more conservation than you think, as John Fleck has reminded us, but eventually one has to compare future climate-based water availability vs. growth.

Lynn k Allen

Very true and will become increasingly true.

Paul Davis

Although this is true in a literal sense, I think the analogy with electricity generation seems apt: for years, there's been advocacy and even a policy based on the idea that saving "one generating station's worth" of electricity is equivalent to building a new generating station. Conservation is, in almost all of the important ways, equivalent to increasing the supply.

Of course, there are limits to conservation just as there are to supply. Anyone who lives in a culture with flushing toilets, dishwashing and near daily personal bathing/showering is going to run into a lower limit on their water use unless they live in a home/community that recycles almost all waste water. And of course, we could theoretically do this, and that would also be "conservation" but would, just like low-flush toilets, effectively allow larger numbers of people to live on the same fixed amount of water. There are other limits that might start to come into effect if we really managed to get that far, though I personally doubt that we ever will.

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