Hydro Regeneration: New City Park, Power System Planned at Site of Historic Facility on Upper Canyon Road

Julie Ann Grimm | The New Mexican

Hydroelectric power could be returning to Santa Fe. A city project vying for federal stimulus money aims to use part of the existing water system to create electricity.

If a proposed underground turbine is installed, about half the power used to take water to city taps from the pump stations off Canyon Road would come from a renewable source – and the past would repeat itself.

Beginning in 1895, water running downhill from the city’s Two-Mile reservoir took a diversion before hitting pipes. Engineers harnessed the force of gravity when water was routed through a brick building on Upper Canyon Road that contained two Pelton wheel turbines, powering an electric generator via a system of belts.

The system was out of use by 1940 and the historic building that housed it abandoned, but that’s not where the story ends. This summer, the city is already poised to restore the building and turn some of the surrounding acres into a park.

Meanwhile, the city Water Division expects to learn this week if it will be awarded a grant or loan of $550,000 to build the new hydroelectric facility nearby, according Dale Lyons, city water resources coordinator.

Instead of requiring an entire building, the Francis turbine proposed for the city is an underground mechanism that would connect to an existing watermain feeding a 5 million-gallon storage tank.

“Hear all the water cranking through that pipe? It’s got about 200 feet of head, the elevation change between the treatment plant and here,” said Lyons as he lifted a heavy steel cover from a manhole next to the tank, raising his voice to be heard over the din.

The job of a valve a few feet underground is to slow down the water enough so that it effectively enters the water tank, he said.

“But the rest of energy is just being wasted. The concept is just to install a turbine right here,” he said. “If there ever was a clear case of a no-brainer project, this is it.”

Under current market conditions, the turbine will save the city at least $20,000 in electric bills, according to a preliminary analysis by Lyons. A board of the New Mexico Finance Authority is scheduled to meet Thursday to make decisions about the grant money, and the city is also spending about $30,000 for a better engineering analysis on the proposal using a hydroelectricity specialist, he said.

The manhole, future turbine, pump houses and hulking, above-ground storage tank are targeted to remain secured by fencing and surveillance. Plans for the park call for the city to tear down a chain-link fence around half of the 14-acre site to create a pedestrian walkway that provides safer access to the busy corner of Upper Canyon Road, Cristo Rey Street and Camino Cabra, among other improvements.

Long-time park advocates with the Canyon Neighborhood Association say they hope the area one day serves to educate the community about hydroelectric power generation and the city’s water system. The restored power-plant building would be in the center of it all, explains Rod Acton, who as president of the association has been involved with planning.

Using money already allocated as part of a citywide, $30 million bond for parks, construction on the Canyon Road Power Plant Park could begin this summer. A contract for the plan is heading to the City Council and could get final approval in June, said project manager Chip Lilienthal.

Plans call for a nearly complete exterior renovation of the brick building and its original pitched roof, but interior work that would make the building usable is part of a second phase of the park that is yet unfunded, he said.

Area residents had expressed concern about the proposed hydrogeneration turbines when early drawings proposed an above-ground mechanism, said Canyon Neighborhood board member Richard Ellenberg. But since the latest ideas would bury all new equipment, he said the idea sounds “fantastic.”

“You already have the water flow that will turn it,” he said. “It’s a very logical place to put it and it relates to the hydro plant park. … That’s very exciting.”

Although an early part of the city’s history, the Canyon Road hydro plant was not the first local electricity production. According to a study by architect Victor Johnson, Santa Fe’s first local energy came from a coal-fired steam plant on Water Street and Don Gaspar. The river also provided direct power to an earlier sawmill.

Johnson said there are questions about when exactly the hydro plant stopped running. One source indicates equipment was replaced in 1926, he said, while other materials suggest operations continued up until a few years before construction of Nichols Reservoir in 1942.