June 2014

Santa Fe Hosts the Western Adaptation Alliance’s Exploration of Food Systems and Urban Water Management


Katherine Mortimer


Just as the federal government was releasing the 2014 National Climate Assessment (NCA) on May 6, Santa Fe was hosting 13 communities that make up the Western Adaptation Alliance (WAA) for a gathering to explore the interrelationship of regional food systems and urban water management. Santa Fe’s team included both city and county staff, as well as community members involved in range of food and water organizations. The NCA response section summarizes strategies to reduce emissions (mitigation) and to adapt to a changing climate. Adaptation is an emerging specialty within the larger climate-change planning field. The WAA is a leader in developing a deeper understanding of climate adaptation challenges of particular importance in the intermountain Southwest, as well as developing strategies for addressing its unique challenges.


Cities across the country are coming to realize that climate change will have far-reaching impacts. The NCA describes actions communities need to take to adapt to climate change and acknowledges that “many of these actions can also improve public health, the economy and quality of life.”


As the effects of climate change are being felt around the world, the arid intermountain West is experiencing extreme flooding, less snowpack, earlier snowmelt and extended drought. Cities here are looking for ways to secure water sources for urban uses as a result of the uncertainties that climate change is creating. At the same time, people are looking at expected increases in food transportation costs and climate extremes affecting crops, and how we can build more robust local food systems to assist with food security. Given this dichotomy, the trend of agricultural water rights being sold for urban development can be seen in a new light.


The WAA meets annually on topics critical to this region related to climate change. This year was the first time that two topics and their complex interrelationships were explored together. Emerging challenges and opportunities were identified, as well as relationships built between government employees, citizen advisory bodies, nonprofit organizations and individuals in and among all 13 communities.


Santa Fe’s team has committed to continue to work together and to follow up on the work started last year in Phoenix when the topic addressed was urban water alone. While water is clearly a keystone resource needing careful consideration for us here, others include fortifying our delicate ecology; reducing wildfire risk and extent of devastation; food and shelter during extended extreme weather events or utility interruptions; and community health risks associated with all of the above.


While most of us are still absorbing the information from the gathering, there were some key takeaways that were noted. For example, one Santa Fe team member noted that, here in New Mexico, we react strongly when a proposal is considered to transfer water rights from one basin to another, especially if it’s from an agricultural basin to an urban use. But then we grow water-intensive crops like alfalfa and pecans and ship all that embodied water to China. In turn, we then import the vast majority of the pine nuts we consume here from China, even though they are a native product here. The whole system seems turned on its head. But how can we dictate a more logical system where food is grown as close to where it is consumed as possible? Such decisions are those of private businesses that respond to market signals, which have nothing to do with developing strategies for a climate that isn’t here yet.


In discussing the benefits of urban agriculture, I came to realize that those benefits are vastly different in areas where water is plentiful and urban gardens and farms can reduce urban blight and associated c,rime. I also came to understand that using drinking water—with its embodied greenhouse gas emissions from pumping and treatment—for use in growing food, needs to be part of the analysis. While urban agriculture has many important benefits to us, we can’t just follow the models of less arid and more blighted cities.


In a session on green infrastructure, my initial understanding was that green infrastructure was a more natural way of addressing stormwater runoff. I left with a deeper understanding of how green infrastructure can be used to promote groundwater recharge and reduce risks associated with extreme rainfall events such as flooding and landslides.


While we have models that tell us what the future climate will likely be here in Santa Fe and our larger region, understanding the complex network of impacts those changes represent is still unfolding. We can’t count on traditional approaches to drought, fire risk, flooding and the like to be enough to address the kinds of extreme events we are likely to see. Such extremes affect physical as well as social infrastructure, and will require breaking down the traditional silos within government and between government and community organizations to develop strategies to ensure safety and continuity of basic necessities into the not-too-distant future.


The National Climate Assessment can be found at: http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report


Katherine Mortimer is Sustainable Santa Fe programs manager for the city of Santa Fe. http://www.santafenm.gov/sustainable_santa_fe





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