Current work in wildlife, rivers, public lands, and climate
City Council Pursues Vote on Contested Pipeline
“The proposed wastewater pipeline is being planned with little consideration of impacts on downstream landowners, wetlands and wildlife that have come to rely on it,” said Rich Schrader, watershed scientist and educator, “and with very little public input.”
The proposed pipeline would send treated wastewater effluent from the Wastewater Treatment Plant on the southside of the city to the Rio Grande. In return the city would pump more water from the Rio Grande through the Buckman Direct Diversion by obtaining “return flow credits.” Currently, the contested water flows in the lower Santa Fe river and sustains communities as well as an ecosystem all the way to Cochiti Pueblo and the Rio Grande. The estimated project cost is nearly $20M and would not actually result in any more physical water for the city while removing half or more of the water in the lower Santa Fe River.
“For county residents, it feels like we’ve been tricked by the City Council’s premature vote to approve the 2100 Water Plan with an unannounced amendment to construct a new $20 million pipeline” says Teresa Seamster, Chair of the Northern New Mexico Group of the Sierra Club.
The environmental community thinks the pipeline is a bad idea, citing concerns that it will not contribute to long term water security for the City as the predicted decreased flows in the Rio Grande and Colorado River may not be able to provide the return flow credits for Santa Fe in the future. Environmental advocates urge the City to delay approval of the pipeline and to undertake a robust planning process first including renewed efforts to conserve and reuse water within the system.
“The Water Division’s return flow pipeline project will produce precisely no additional water for the city,” said Neil Williams, an engineer and a member of the Sierra Club. “It is not a ‘reuse’ project. It would trade a gallon of our effluent laden with nutrients and pharmaceuticals for a gallon of sediment laden river water that is collected downstream of LANL. We would do better to plan the necessary additional treatment of our effluent and retain the purified water here in the Santa Fe River system recharging our local aquifer.”
The pipeline was proposed in response to two studies: a 2015 Bureau of Reclamation Basin Study of the Santa Fe River and a 2017 feasibility study the City contracted to an engineering firm in response to the Basin Study.
The Basin Study suggests that because of increased water demand and decreased supply in the future the City needs to expand water supply. It also cites concerns that by 2100 flows in the Colorado River that contribute to Santa Fe’s water supply may decrease by 25% and that “shortages within the Colorado River Basin could lead to priority calls or shortage sharing agreements that would result in decreased supply to New Mexico.” This is a reality that the City and Water Division appear to be ignoring while pushing for the pipeline.
The 2017 feasibility study examines various ways to expand City water supply such as aquifer storage and recovery and direct potable reuse. These alternatives would keep the effluent in the City’s system and use advanced treatment technologies to bring the water to drinking quality. Such systems are being implemented in other water stressed municipalities like El Paso. The pipeline came out as the top choice in the feasibility study because of cost, but some argue that the study has issues.
“The feasibility study glossed over the real possibility the Rio Grande will be too low to divert this water for extended periods of time and the negative impacts to the Santa Fe River and downstream communities,” said Galen Hecht, Rio Grande Campaigner with WildEarth Guardians. “The City has made great efforts in the past to protect living rivers, and I think it can and should do better moving forward.”
The environmental groups opposed to the pipeline include WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club, and New Mexico Wild, and these groups urge the City to act responsibly and postpone any votes on the pipeline.