City Resolution Aims to Resuscitate Santa Fe River

The New Mexican 

Residents and visitors will see a steady, if small, flow in the Santa Fe River beginning today.

The release of water from Santa Fe Canyon reservoirs, authorized by a City Council resolution adopted Wednesday, is a big step forward in efforts to resuscitate the usually dry, arroyo-like river so central to Santa Fe’s history.

The resolution allows between 500 and 700 acre-feet of water to pass through the city’s two municipal reservoirs in the upper Santa Fe Watershed and flow down the river until at least September. People will be able to wade about ankle deep in the river’s narrow section between Patrick Smith and De Vargas parks from May 11 to May 17. The rest of the summer the flow should be enough to wet feet and keep alive trout stocked in the river for a June 6 fishing derby.

Efforts to put a regular flow back in the river began more than a decade ago.

In the last several years, the city’s reservoir have spilled about 700 acre-feet of water in a rush during spring snowmelts in the mountains above Santa Fe. Advocates for keeping water in the river said that same amount of water, managed differently, could be released from the reservoirs slowly through the summer for a more sustained flow.

How long the flow will be allowed this summer depends on reservoir levels. If they drop below a certain level, the gate letting water into the river could be shut off, according to the city’s resolution. As of Thursday, the reservoirs were 82 percent full with 14 million gallons a day flowing in.

David Groenfeldt, executive director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association, called the resolution a good first step toward creating a “living river.” “The goal of a living river has yet to really infiltrate into the culture of the city,” Groenfeldt said. “What is needed is a river consciousness.”

A regular flow in the river’s upper reaches will help re-establish a healthy native riparian area and recharge the underground aquifer that feeds nearby wells. About two cubic-feet per second flow could keep the upper river wet through most of the summer, depending on reservoir levels. That flow is enough to sustain newly planted native trees and bushes along the river, according to Rachel Friedman, river coordinator for the City of Santa Fe.

Historically, several springs fed the river in the Santa Fe Canyon, in Agua Fría and at what is now Frenchy’s Field park. More than 30 acequias diverted river water for irrigation from the canyon to La Cienega through the early 1900s, according to a history of the river provided on the Santa Fe Watershed Association Web site.

Elderly residents in the traditional village of Agua Fría remember when the river had large cottonwoods and duck ponds. Historical accounts tell of trout in the river. The only time they swim there now is when the city lets out some reservoir water and trout are stocked for public fishing.

The river’s dewatering and long decline appears to have started in the late 1940s, according to the watershed association history. Five wells drilled near the river supplied almost 70 percent of the community’s water until the 1950s, when the water system switched to using the reservoirs as the primary supply. A Rio Grande diversion project now under construction will eventually serve as the primary water source for the city, with the wells and reservoirs providing a backup supply.

The city is trying to raise funds to buy water rights that would be dedicated to the river. Santa Fe residents can check off a donation for the river fund on their monthly water bills. The river fund now holds just under $50,000, which the city will match dollar for dollar with money from other sources, Friedman said. “We are actively looking for water rights to purchase in the Santa Fe River watershed system,” she said.