April 2016

From Survival and Sustainable Agriculture to Río Grande Diversion


The History of Santa Fe’s Water Supply


Hilario E. Romero and Michael Aune


The earliest residents of Santa Fe settled along a river corridor because of its riparian life, flowing river, cold springs and shallow aquifers that could bring fresh, clean water to the surface. For centuries, Pueblo people survived in the area until severe perennial droughts arrived in A.D. 1400 and forced them out. Over the next three-and-a-half centuries, the climate changed, gradually increasing the river flow and recharging the aquifers. Spanish settlers arrived, and soon the area became the capital of their new province. The needs of the Pueblo people and the settlers never outgrew the river’s capacity to provide.

In 1881, 33 years after the United States-México signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the river was dammed, and, with the support of a Board of County Commissioners, a private monopoly formed and attempted to take over the water rights that had been granted to Agua Fría and Santa Fe residents by the Spanish Crown and Mexican government. In 1914, the Hydrographic Survey of Santa Fe showed 38 acequias irrigated over 1,200 acres of farmland. Slowly but surely, however, those acequias were shut off, one by one, as water became a commodity instead of a human right. It would become owned and managed by a private monopoly. This was the beginning of the water wars.

Early History of an Area Founded on Water

Pueblo people began to settle the area as early as A.D. 1100, appreciating the cultivable soil and relatively long growing season. Centuries later, that hospitable place would become the village of Agua Fría. By A.D 1200., the Pueblo people moved upstream to what is now downtown Santa Fe. They probably relocated as a result of cosmic signs and drought. The new site gave them better access to water, firewood, hunting and security. However, they had to build a new pueblo, create river diversions and dig irrigation ditches. Their new location also presented challenges such as a slightly shorter growing season, which caused them to develop techniques to compensate for the rise in elevation and proximity to the mountains. They possessed drought-resistant seeds—corn, squash and beans. Their extensive experience with the environment and ability to relocate made them adaptable to natural disasters. Eventually they again moved on, to the Río Tesuque, and were living there when the Spanish arrived.

The early Spanish expeditions journeyed near that area in 1540, with Coronado and followed by several others, until the original colonists arrived with Oñate in 1598, settling in the pueblo of Okeh’ Owingeh and later moving across the Río Grande, where they built San Gabriel, New Mexico’s first Spanish settlement. Some of those colonists moved south to settle near what is now Agua Fría for the same reasons as the early Pueblo people. The colonists encountered the remains of the pueblos from an earlier era, a flowing river, ciénegas and ojitos fríos and pastura, despite a severe drought that had gripped the area for 40 years. In 1610, Pedro de Peralta located the plaza near the river southeast of an abandoned pueblo. He chose that location because it was elevated and good for defense, near abundant springs, firewood, hunting grounds, pastures for horses, cattle and goat herds.

This new capital required the assistance of the first Indian and Spanish farmers from the Agua Fría and Tesuque Pueblo areas, who provided food, shelter and knowledge of hunting, fishing and agriculture.

The early Pueblo people knew from centuries of existence in northern New Mexico that water was life—that each precious drop was important and that the springs were sacred. They adapted to this environment and became one with it. Their knowledge of the flora and fauna gave them an advantage over their new neighbors, who eventually learned to survive in an unpredictable environment. Life in Santa Fe during the colonial period required work that took up most of the day and night. Soldiers and Pueblo warriors were constantly on alert to protect pueblos and small Spanish communities from attacks by the Apachis, Nabaju and Yuta tribes. During droughts, the community had to work together to locate and share sources of water. Some dug deeper wells or searched the mountains for springs.

Drought returned in the 1670s and 1680s, causing hunger and suffering. The Spanish military forced the Pueblo people to share their food stores. Franciscan missionaries continued their attempts to wipe out Pueblo religion. Drought conditions contributed to the Pueblo Revolt. Once concessions were made and the encomienda—patronage or tribute—was abolished, the Pueblos were able to practice their religion freely. The Spanish and Pueblos then maintained a civil relationship throughout most of the remaining colonial period. The Spanish now understood that, especially in New Mexico, “agua es vida”—water is life. The river and perennial springs flowed in the plaza area. Further downstream, in Agua Fría, La Cieneguilla, Alamo, La Ciénega and La Bajada, the settlers watered their crops, more from the springs than from the more variable flow of the river. Near the Parroquia de San Francisco de Asís—Santa Fe’s original church—there was a large spring that fed the Río Chiquito, which ran to a confluence with the Río Santa Fe a little south of the Santuario de Guadalupe. In the 1730s, there was a decade of drought, but it was not as severe as those in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Santa Fe grew to a small community of about 230 families and 1,500 people, according to the 1750 Provincial Census. Included in that count were the 100 or more soldiers and their families who were on alert at the presidio. There were approximately 1,000 to 1,200 horses, available for military expeditions that grazed in areas surrounding the town. Water was allocated for pasture and alfalfa fields for small herds of cattle, sheep and goats. By 1790, the population was 2,396, including the presidio and its families but not including the surrounding villages. This increased population still had not outgrown the area’s water capacity. For the following century, droughts were less frequent. Spanish and Pueblo communities grew and generally prospered.

The arrival of the first caravans from Missouri, after the opening of trade between the United States and México, created substantial increases in the population and the use of water. More agriculture and ranching were necessary to sustain the new residents. Santa Fe’s population in 1850 was 4,846, but during the following decade it declined. Still, the watershed was able to provide sufficient water. By 1880, when the population had grown to 6,635, the Board of County Commissioners tried to empower the Santa Fe Water and Improvement Company “…with the exclusive right and privilege of erecting dams and reservoirs for impounding water on the Santa Fe River,” according to documents cited in a 1996 report by Karen Lewis and Douglas Campbell. The city then unilaterally granted itself the right to divert 1,540 acre-feet per year for a domestic water delivery system, without the consent of downstream parciantes, or irrigators, who had prior rights. In June 1881, a citizen’s committee was appointed to settle the matter with the Water Works Board. The company announced that it would not interfere with the flow of the river, day or night, and would remunerate all persons whose property was in any way injured by the laying of water mains. The Two-Mile Dam was erected in 1893 when the Stone Dam reservoir had become laden with silt.

According to the 1914 Hydrographic Survey of Santa Fe, there were over 30 acequias, delivering 5,701 acre-feet of water to over 1,250 acres of farmland in the city. Keeping the river running recharged the aquifer and kept city and community wells from drying up. To provide for needs during the dry season, two reservoirs were built in the headwaters of the Santa Fe River. From 1925, until the end of World War II, when surviving parciantes, who had enlisted, returned to their lands along the river, the city, with the aid of the private water company, began to take their water away, at a time when the city was nearing its water capacity. Residents began to dig wells near the river, the effect of which was to gradually dry out many natural springs downstream in Agua Fría, according to residents’ accounts. In 1951, it was estimated that 68 percent of the drinking water was coming from wells.

Recent History

In 1962, the San Juan-Chama Project began to provide water for communities along the Río Grande by diverting water from the San Juan Mountains through tunnels to Willow Creek and on to Heron Lake. Since that time, the need for water has increased among many communities along the Río Grande. When the Buckman well field was brought online for Santa Fe in 1972, it became the city’s major source of water.

As demand increased, these wells were drilled deeper and deeper into aquifers. Natural springs and many individual wells dried up as the water table dropped.The city of Santa Fe had reached its capacity to provide water to its residents. With the current drought that began in 1996, Santa Fe County and the city collaborated on getting 5,605 acre-feet of water from the San Juan-Chama Project through the Buckman Direct Diversion on the Río Grande.

Op-Ed: The Potential Impact of Wildfires

In recent years, Santa Fe’s water supply, both city and county, has become dependent on three main sources: wells; the San Juan-Chama Project/Río Grande; and the Santa Fe River, which supplies the Nichols and McClure reservoirs. The San Juan-Chama and those reservoirs have been in annual jeopardy due to the risk of wildfires in the watersheds’ headwaters, which could destroy water-delivery infrastructure. Depending on water demand, if one of those sources is taken out, the other two may provide sufficient capacity for the short term. Both the city and county have taken admirable steps towards water conservation, but it is conceivable that even more stringent requirements could become necessary if there is an emergency situation. Though water rights have been acquired by local governments to supplement these options, very little concerted action has taken place to safeguard the sources of Santa Fe’s water supply. Local and state elected officials avoid acknowledging the very real possibility of worst-case scenarios.

Op-Ed: Growth’s Impact on Water Supply

With over 67,000 inhabitants and an abundance of hotels and motels, apartment complexes, luxury developments and other large water users, it is questionable as to whether Santa Fe can continue to guarantee enough water for the future. Recent annexations to the west and south, which added almost 14,000 residents, present new problems for water and infrastructure. The city must now provide services to these areas, including water. Santa Fe County is building a pipeline and water-storage tank to provide water from the Buckman Direct Diversion to Eldorado. Los Alamos has committed $27 million to build three access points to collect 1,200 more acre-feet per year from the San Juan-Chama Project. Nambé and Pojoaque also are slated to receive 4,500 acre-feet as a result of the Aamodt water suit. The Middle Río Grande Conservancy District is allocated 20,900 acre-feet, Albuquerque already receives 48,200 acre-feet, and Santa Fe, 5,605 acre feet. That is a lot of straws drinking from a small cup.

This winter started out well for snowpack, but warmer temperatures and record heat, clear skies and winds during the second half of February and March melted and evaporated a large amount of snow. The Santa Fe Ski Basin reported 100 to 103 inches, or an average of 8.4 feet on February 7, 2016, and, on March 23, it was at about 53 inches, or an average of 4.4 feet. This has also occurred in the San Juan Mountains that feed San Juan Diversion Project water into Heron Lake. Each fall from 2010 to 2015, Heron Lake has almost been empty. The latest photo shows that, on the north side of the lake, Windsor Creek flows through a dry boat dock. A total of 80,405 acre-feet will be allocated to major users, including Albuquerque, Santa Fe, the Middle Río Grande Conservancy District, Los Alamos and the Pojoaque Valley, when they start receiving water. The snowpack at Wolf Creek Ski Area was at 96 to 136 inches, or an average of 9.6 feet on Feb. 7, 2016, but, on March 20, it was at 81 to 119 inches, or an average of 8.4 feet, and shrinking due to warm temperatures.

Santa Fe will probably continue to grow, but by how much will depend on the capacity of its watershed, wells, the flow of the Río Grande and additional users that draw from it. Looking to the future in this time of global warming, communities need to rely more on long-range water management, local food production, reducing dependency on fossil fuels and developing long-range alternative energy plans.

Hilario E. Romero, a New Mexican mestizo (Spanish/Basque/Jicarilla Apache/Ute), is a former New Mexico state historian. He has spent the past 40 years in higher education, as an administrator and professor of history, education and Spanish at Northern New Mexico College, and adjunct at New Mexico Highlands University and University of New Mexico.

Michael Aune has explored the headwaters of Western watersheds for over 40 years and studied wildfire’s destructive impact on watersheds. He has testified before legislative committees and served on the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission Wildfire Task Force.

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