Green Fire Times

Santa Fe Water Capacity Revisited: Climate Change, Drought and Demand

By Hilario E. Romero

In my April 2016 Green Fire Times article, “From Survival and Sustainable Agriculture to Río Grande Diversion: A Brief History of Santa Fe’s Water Supply,” I wrote a brief chronological perspective of how Santa Fe grew from its beginnings until today, emphasizing how the availability of water determined sustainability. It ended with a section on “Growth’s Impact on Water Supply.” I attempted to explain how we need to prepare for the worst.

The winter of 2016-2017 was a good snowpack season, unlike the years before, so I pointed out that even in a good snow season, rising temperatures in January and February of 2016 and the early winds evaporated about 20 percent of the snowpack prematurely. It flowed into the reservoirs earlier than normal.

With the temperatures in New Mexico rising in 2017 to their hottest in recorded history, and this winter’s dismal snowpack, we should be thinking about convening a team of water, land and climate specialists along with community planners to come up with a long-range vision for Santa Fe’s growth. Recently, the ruling of the “special master” in the Texas vs. New Mexico and Colorado water case before the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the federal government to enter the case to meet its federal and international water obligations and any actions that would go against the 1938 Río Grande Compact, which could also impact Santa Fe’s water in the near future.

Allocations from the San Juan-Chama project to date show that since 2000, the water available in Heron Lake has averaged about 110,000 acre-feet. Of that total, 96,000 acre-feet has been allocated to downstream users. That leaves 14,000 acre-feet on reserve. We are fortunate this year that we can depend on the Río Grande Diversion allocation due to a good snowpack last winter (2016-2017). That winter added about 60,000 additional acre-feet, so downstream users will be able to use their share of the water. However, when you look back at the amounts of storage water in the 1970s and 1980s at Heron Lake, there is not much of a comparison. This winter, with both the Sangre de Cristos and the San Juan Mountains receiving one-third of normal snowpack, we will not be able to count on our reservoirs and diversion water if this pattern continues. We need to recharge Santa Fe’s aquifers in order to use the wells if they become the only alternative to drought. Climatologists studying the Southwest U.S. predict that this pattern will continue.  

Hilario E. Romero, an author and former New Mexico State Historian, is a retired history, Spanish and education professor of 40 years. He is currently a board member, publications chair and international liaison for the Camino Real Trail Association.