On April 18, the Santa Fe River was named America's most endangered river of 2007 by American Rivers, a Washington D.C.-based national river advocacy group. The river, a tributary of the Rio Grande that runs across 46 miles of Northern New Mexico high-desert and mountain terrain, passes through Santa Fe and provides the city with about 40 percent of its water supply. The river has been mostly dry for decades. The declaration was made due to a severe lack of water.
The problem at hand lies in dams and reservoirs first built in the 19th century. The reservoirs eventually got larger until they caught all of the river's flow. "When they want to store water, they close the river and let the dam fill up. When they have too much water, they open the reservoir and let some water flow out. It's not intentionally abusive, but the result was that they were turning the water on and off like a faucet and not treating the river like a living system," says David Groenfeldt, executive director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association, which partners with American Rivers.
While the declaration may seem ominous, Rebecca Wodder, president of America Rivers, is optimistic, saying there is a great political will to do something for the Santa Fe River. "This is the time to make a commitment so that [the Santa Fe River] will be a living river again, and so that Santa Fe can really be an example for the world on how to protect a desert river in the 21st century." Wodder says steps to fixing the problem include dedicating 10 percent of the city's water to the river, developing a long-range plan and adopting modern methods of water conservation, such as harvesting rainwater and not wasting water on landscaping.
According to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), the state of the river could easily change, but the issues are socially, economically and politically very complex. NMED has spent more than $3 million in federal grants to improve the river's habitat and watershed. Marisa Stone, NMED's spokesperson, says the challenges of balancing development and increasing water-use in a desert environment exist throughout the Southwest. "Communities have to decide whether they believe there is value in restoring and maintaining river ecosystem health." She adds that calling the Santa Fe a "river," and an "endangered river" at that, is a great stretch. It is instead an effluent channel, she says.
Groenfeldt says the new way of thinking in river management, which the City of Santa Fe seems to be embracing, is to see rivers as biological entities that need to be kept alive and, in turn, will give back to the community.