October 2015

A River Runs through Us

Melissa A. McDonald
Before construction of Santa Fe’s reservoir system in 1947, the Santa Fe River ran as a continuous flow. From its snow-fed branches in the upper watershed to the Río Grande, fish would swim, birds would fly and wildlife would come to splash and drink. Before Santa Fe was given its Spanish name, it was called “Po’e Gae,” meaning “watering place.”

We were blessed over the last two years with a substantial amount of water in the river due to necessary improvements of the Nichols and McClure reservoirs. With these projects almost complete, you may hear that “we’ll never again see that much water on a regular basis in the river.” This remains to be seen, but our city can and should continue to recreate a living river. This would improve the quality of our lives, provide a healthy boost to our economy, reconnect us with our past, recharge our aquifers, improve water quality to our downstream neighbors and restore our reason for being here.

Thanks to the hard work of former Mayor David Coss and the City Council, the river has responded well to the induced meandering, vegetative management and other erosion control projects. Pedestrians, joggers, cyclists, bird watchers and children of all ages are now enjoying the corridor—almost as if it were the good old days.

Fortunately, Mayor Javier Gonzales and the current City Council are building upon this work by taking a holistic view of the river and its contributing watershed. Serious efforts to bring back the river have been underway for decades, but part of bringing back the river involves a revolution in the way our culture approaches stormwater.

To better understand the basis of this revolution, let’s consider the words of Luna Leopold, the native New Mexican son of Aldo Leopold (whose “green fire” in the eyes of a dying wolf suggests the name of this newspaper). In his 1960 essay, Water and the Conservation Movement, Luna asks, “Did you ever wonder how rivers and streams may continue to flow during long periods without rainfall? The flow in rivers during times of fair weather is water draining slowly out of the ground into surface streams.”

In an average year the roofs and roads of the City Different shed over one billion gallons of water. Throughout the urban portion, impervious surfaces reduce infiltration into the ground, while they simultaneously divert runoff at alarming rates. It is this excessive speed and increased volume of runoff that is one of the main reasons why the Santa Fe River became less and less dependable over time. Instead of being supported by a steady flow of water from the kind of infiltration that Leopold describes, stormwater now flies off of our city in fits and starts—with long, dry spells in between. Meanwhile, the water that crashes through the arroyos and the river brings sediment and other pollutants with it, and this makes it ever harder for our “river” to be one.

A major initiative that the city of Santa Fe will focus on is the infiltration of more stormwater into the river. Up until recently, conventional standards required that runoff be directed quickly away from the built environment. But today, the city is assessing the use of green-infrastructure projects, low-impact developments and passive and active water-harvesting systems to capture and redirect water to the river by means of its greater watershed.

To do this effectively, Mayor Gonzales, the council, the Santa Fe River Commission and city staff will be working with Luna Leopold’s idea and look at every arroyo as a potential stream that might one day feed the river with both surface and groundwater. To this end, a citywide arroyo assessment program ranks arroyos based on drainage problems, erosion issues and danger to infrastructure. Private/public arroyo projects that work with homeowners and/or neighborhood associations may soon be commonplace. Rain gardens, depressions that collect stormwater and clean it before it enters an arroyo or river, will become key features of these projects, as will native seeds and plants that stabilize slopes, absorb water, build soil and beautify our city.

In some of the wetter areas, often along acequia routes, locations for urban agriculture will also be identified and developed. In other areas, shade, windbreaks and biodiversity will become obvious additional benefits to the watershed-wide effort. Even plant material that provides noise abatement and view screening will be considered as projects are developed.

There are many ways that the public can contribute to the revitalization of the river. For some, the easiest would be to contribute to the Santa Fe River Conservation Fund. The fund is designed to provide monies for projects that will have a positive effect on our urban riparian areas. The city will match each donation dollar for dollar. Currently, you can check off a box on your water bill and, with the city’s forthcoming billing system, you will be able to sign up for recurring donations.

Another way to support a living river is to look into the work of the Santa Fe River Commission. The commission meets from 6 pm to 8 pm on the second Thursday of every month in the city’s offices in the Railyard. The commission has been key to getting improvements in the river to actually occur, and it is eagerly looking at new ways to bring our river back to life.

We can recreate a living river. It will take time for us to regularly see the flows that we have enjoyed over the last two years, but with our cooperative and concerted efforts this goal can be achieved. It’s a worthwhile goal, too. As climate change challenges the resiliency of cities everywhere, it’s exciting to be part of this city’s efforts—this watering place’s efforts—to bounce back better. It’s up to us to make it happen, though. Can you hear the happy splashes of future generations?

Melissa McDonald is the city of Santa Fe’s River & Watershed coordinator. She can be reached at mamcdonald@santafenm.gov


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