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.