The Santa Fe City Council plans to vote Wednesday on whether to approve the design and construction of a $20 million pipeline from the south side wastewater treatment plant to the Buckman Direct Diversion plant on the Rio Grande.
The roughly 17-mile pipeline would run treated effluent back into the Rio Grande, perhaps doubling the amount of water the city could draw for household and business use.
But the Buckman Return Plan, as city officials call it, could decrease by half the amount of water that farmers and residents living below the treatment plant receive from the Santa Fe River.
Critics say that since the proposal comes in the form of an amendment to a resolution to create a 40- to 80-year water plan for the city, it may be a premature move.
“They are trying to pass legislation to undertake an 80-year water plan and yet they want to approve a major $20 million project before that planning has already started,” said Galen Hecht, Rio Grande campaigner for the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “There’s a lot of work left to be done and yet the city seems to be pursuing a hard-line approach to getting this water.”
Neil Williams, a water-quality engineer who worked for the city in wastewater collection in the 1970s and a member of the Sierra Club, agrees. He said questions remain about the actual cost of the return flow plan, including additional treatment procedures and potential upgrades needed for the treatment plants.
He also said the plan basically means Santa Fe is sending effluent discharge back into the Rio Grande instead of finding a way to treat and store it locally.
“Basically we’re pumping water in a big circle,” he said. “We get no extra water, we just trade treated effluent for untreated river water. It doesn’t actually increase the amount of water in the river basin.”
Not every councilor is supportive of moving the plan forward so fast. During Monday’s Public Works/CIP and Land Use Committee hearing, Councilors Renee Villarreal and JoAnne Vigil Coppler voted against forwarding the motion.
Both said they have concerns about ensuring the public understands the proposal and that farmers, ranchers and others who may be affected by the pipeline have a chance to express their concerns.
“I don’t think I have enough information on this,” Villarreal told Councilor Peter Ives, who first introduced the amendment to move forward with the pipeline last week as part of a larger resolution to “develop both a 40-year and 80-year plan to “evaluate the City’s water demand and supplies— including evaluation of operational scenarios to maximize the City’s existing water supplies.”
Members of the Santa Fe City Council Public Utilities Committee voted 3-1 last Wednesday to approve that resolution, introduced by Santa Fe City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth, with Ives’ amendment intact.
Romero-Wirth and Chris Rivera supported Ives in that action, while Coppler was not present. Villarreal voted against it.
On Monday, Ives and councilor Roman Abeyta voted for moving the resolution and amendment forward to the City Council.
The 2-2 stalemate is not enough to stall the measure, Ives said, so the council will have the right to act on it.
The plan has been in the works for several years as water officials seek to take advantage of possible extra water credits under the complex, decades-old San Juan-Chama Project, which funnels Colorado River Basin water into the Rio Grande.
City officials have long said if drought conditions worsen or the municipal watershed in the mountains east of the city were damaged by fire, the city’s water supply could be threatened.
Those concerns were heightened by a 2015 Bureau of Reclamation study that said the need for water will double by 2055, from about 85,000 city and county users to 170,000.
City leaders say they have already set aside some $12 for the pipeline and applied for another $4.5 million in federal grant money to support the project.
City water officials say it will take three years to design the project and another one to two years to build it.
Even if the city council approves the idea, it has to be approved by both the State Engineer’s Office and the Bureau of Reclamation.