Quita Ortiz

Despite an increase in population, the city of Santa Fe has reduced its annual water consumption by more than half since the mid-1990s, when it purchased the water utility from Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM). Nationally, Santa Fe has become a model among cities for water conservation. Its utility is charged with delivering a safe and reliable water supply to its customers.

Many of those customers support a vibrant local-food economy, as evidenced by the success of the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market and local CSAs (community supported agriculture). The Santa Fe Farmers’ Market is the state’s oldest and largest outlet for the sale of locally produced food. Many restaurants in Santa Fe cater to locals and tourists alike who enjoy participating in the farm-to-table experience.

The city and county of Santa Fe have worked to acquire senior water rights to ensure their ability to have an adequate supply in times of drought. But in a state whose water rights have been fully appropriated—meaning there are no new water rights available—Santa Fe must acquire the right to use water by purchasing and transferring rights from existing senior water users. This can result in water conflicts between cities and rural communities. The water rights Santa Fe and other cities seek to acquire belong to many of the same farmers who are attempting to maintain their traditional culture and meet increasing local food demands.

This means that water conservation has an important role to play in the demand for local food. If Santa Fe wishes to build and maintain a strong local-food scene, residents need to continue decreasing their water use so that the city will not have to obtain additional, expensive agricultural water rights. This will allow more area farms to stay in production.

The city of Santa Fe’s current annual water demand is about 10,000 acre-feet. In a normal year, the city is able to meet most of that demand with its two surface-water sources, the Santa Fe River and the Río Grande. In drought years or when demand is very high, the city also has two groundwater well fields. Due to the hydrologic connection between surface water and groundwater, the Office of the State Engineer requires that the city purchase “offset” water rights to ensure that any adverse impacts to senior surface-water users due to groundwater pumping by junior users is accounted for, i.e., offset, by the purchase and retirement of senior surface-water rights.

It’s important to note that, although Santa Fe has done commendably well in its water-conservation efforts, there is always room for improvement—particularly as it relates to the local food system. The city’s Water Division has the responsibility to meet customer water demand, but residents and businesses that advocate for local food would be remiss in overlooking the connection between their urban water footprint and simultaneous desire for local and regional food.

The Santa Fe Food Policy Council’s food plan calls for implementation of strategies that help offset residential water use, such as installing graywater and rainwater-harvesting systems, which collect rainfall to reduce demand and reduce the severity of stormwater flows. The SFFPC also advocates working with the city and county on land-use plans that support agricultural activities. Additionally, the city’s long-range water-supply plan calls for a substantial reduction in groundwater pumping, utilizing that resource as a last priority during critical drought periods. This means that water conservation and reuse of treated wastewater effluent will inevitably take on larger roles with respect to future water demand.

In a state with a limited water supply, greater understanding of the relationship between regional agriculture and urban water needs can provide a foundation from which to foster dialogue among stakeholders. Santa Fe is one of the most water-conscious cities in the arid Southwest. If city residents are willing to perpetuate rigorous conservation efforts and support the use of new technology, pressure to acquire expensive senior agricultural water rights will be reduced, minimizing the impact to surrounding rural communities that are the breadbaskets of our farmers’ markets and the basis of New Mexico’s cultural heritage.

Quita Ortiz is a water resources analyst for the city of Santa Fe Water Division.

SIDEBAR:

Water for Nature or Economic Development?

David Groenfeldt

Conserving water can relieve pressure on water ecosystems, which is an environmental benefit, but this is not necessarily the case. Household water-conservation programs in my city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, for example, have been pursued as a way of providing “new” water to support the construction of more houses and businesses in the water-scarce city. Economically, the community is better off because the same amount of water is providing more net benefit at the same cost, but the river and aquifer from which the water is taken have not benefited from the increased efficiency.

Benefiting the river through urban water conservation would require a deliberate shift in priorities away from economic values to environmental ethics. For example, the community could adopt a policy of reducing the amount of water diverted from the river by 10 percent. A soft path of water conservation would then be pursued with the aim of meeting the present—and perhaps future—water demand from houses and businesses plus a 10 percent water rebate to the river.

Economics is a tool for management that can be usefully applied to finding efficient solutions to the challenge of meeting nature’s own water demands. But the questions of how saved water should be allocated and whether the river deserves some or all of that water are fundamentally ethical decisions.

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