In December, the Santa Fe City Council and mayor approved developing a pipeline to pump water from the southern Santa Fe River into the Rio Grande, which will increase Santa Fe’s water allocation from the northern San Juan-Chama/Rio Grande. No doubt the city believes this will ensure Santa Fe’s water availability, especially in times of drought.
I fear our city government lacks awareness of the detrimental decision it made, let alone understands the fragility of our high desert ecosystems. This decision will destroy the lower Santa Fe River that has come to rely on the water flow, and it will destroy habitats for thousands of animals, birds and vegetation. It may also risk more volatile fires in the area. The decision was made with inadequate public process and without consideration for basic environmental science.
If a river flows continually or generates water from an underground spring, then moisture levels on both banks of the river contain constant moisture and flow.
Whenever we see a river on the surface, expand the river by up to 50 miles underground. This constant moisture promotes aquifer recharge and allows microbes to thrive, which in turn develops healthy soils. Root systems can establish that hold water and allow plants to flourish. These processes create habitats for a myriad of species, local and migratory, such as burrowing rodents and birds.
Moisture must remain in the soils of riparian zones to ensure surface water flow and fire protection. Fires are never catastrophic near rivers, and in the Southwest the most volatile fires happen where soils are most dry (mesa tops and high alpine forests). This is why water is life and rivers are lifelines.
Think of all the rivers in the world like veins in the human body. When we cut a vein and redirect the blood, then the entire limb or section of the body will become numb, die, or develop crippling pain to the point the entire body can no longer operate. That is how precious our rivers are, how they are linked to innumerable ecological services that allow life to happen. Rivers are the veins of Earth.
Municipalities across the country divert water from local rivers, increasing water availability within that municipality, but in the Southwest we are beyond our limit of water use. New Mexico’s water laws are a convoluted trade game, so as to “insure” water rights or availability, with no understanding that dams, pipelines and evaporation make these joke-insurances cripple desert life and will not secure water availability for Santa Feans during droughts or otherwise.
The Santa Fe River serves a primary ecological role around Santa Fe. The city’s feasibility study to justify the pipeline is a superficial engineering and economic study, and does not adequately address science and the true cost of this project. The city must support healthy ecosystems in order to address the climate crisis. Understanding the fragility of high desert ecosystems is critical when it comes to any local development project.
We have many environmental specialists in this area who understand the ecological role of water, and the city should consult them before foolishly draining the Santa Fe River that has come to rely on flows south of the city. The City Council and mayor should reverse the approval of the pipeline.
Instead, we should pursue extreme water conservation, remove invasive, water-sucking plants, restore native ecosystems that naturally replenish aquifers and provide beauty and quality of life, and expand (rather than reduce) our commitment to a living Santa Fe River.