New Mexico Seeks to Clean Up Santa Fe River

Right at the top of a list of the country's most endangered rivers is New Mexico's Santa Fe. The American Rivers group says the river must be cleaned up — and it shouldn't be siphoned off for other purposes, either.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is the day the organization American Rivers released its annual list of the country's most endangered rivers. And at the top of that list is New Mexico's Santa Fe River.

Mayor DAVID COSS (Santa Fe, New Mexico): It's not the designation you would covet as a mayor.

INSKEEP: But Santa Fe Mayor David Coss says he welcomes that designation. As NPR's Ted Robbins discovered, in this case crisis means opportunity.

TED ROBBINS: The Santa Fe River is 25 to 40 miles long, depending how you measure; that's because its tributary of the Rio Grande peters out from lack of water before reaching the big river.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

ROBBINS: A few miles upstream from its end, hydrologist Paige Grant and I walk along the river. Above: 30-foot-high dirt banks crumbling away. Below: well, it's pretty much a dump.

Ms. PAIGE GRANT (Hydrologist/Founder, Santa Fe Watershed Association): I would say it looks like somebody's discarded patio tables.

ROBBINS: And their tires…

Ms. GRANT: Yes, tires are a regular feature, and plastic this and that.

ROBBINS: Paige Grant is a founder of the Santa Fe Watershed Association. For 10 years she's been fighting to restore this part of the river to what it was just 40 years ago.

Ms. GRANT: What people my age can remember of this section of the river is big cottonwoods, ephemeral pools, you know, a place that was just a lively riparian area.

ROBBINS: In the heart of downtown Santa Fe, tourists stroll among brown adobe shops, hotels and museums. The river flows here just two blocks from the historic Santa Fe Plaza.

Ms. GRANT: This is one of my favorite hideous places.

ROBBINS: The river is channeled between high rock walls; trees on one side, a street on the other. Paige Grant points to holes in the rock walls, storm drains seeping sewage.

Ms. GRANT: So obviously there's a restaurant that's washing out their breezy floors down into a handy drain.

ROBBINS: But let's face it. This is what you'd expect from an endangered river. Go upstream, though, to the river's headwaters in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, down through the woods above town - it's beautiful. And even with its problems downstream, it's hard to believe the Santa Fe is the worst river in the country.

Rebecca Wodder is president of American Rivers, which compiled the list.

Ms. REBECCA WODDER (President, American Rivers): It's not necessary that they're the worst rivers. They can - a river on this list can be one of the best, but it's at a crossroads.

ROBBINS: The designation is intended to be sort of a kick in the pants to stop using the river as a sewer and to restore the trashed-out portions. Even more, to bring back the river's historic flow. Snowmelt is being released into the river from two reservoirs because this has been a good spring. In a bad spring - and the current Southwest drought has brought many - there may be no water to release.

So American Rivers wants Santa Fe to guarantee 10 percent of whatever water there is for a semi-permanent flow.

Ms. CLAUDIA BORCHERT (Hydrologist, Santa Fe Water Division): That can be enough to keep the river alive and healthy and thriving, but shouldn't make that difference for the community itself.

ROBBINS: That's an assumption Claudia Borchert can't make. A hydrologist with the Santa Fe Water Department, it's her job to make sure people have water when they turn on their taps. And Santa Fe's cheapest and most reliable source is the river.

Ms. BORCHERT: We consider surface water renewable, like you would renewable wind or solar energy, because obviously after it rains or the snow falls every year, it's there every year.

ROBBINS: The river provides at least a third of the city's drinking water. The rest comes from rapidly depleting ground water sources. So where would more water for a flowing river come from? Well, the city can buy it from other places. Residents can help pay for it by checking a box on their utility bills, and people can conserve it, though Mayor David Coss says low-flow toilets and high awareness have already led to a remarkable conservation record.

Mayor DAVID COSS (Santa Fe, New Mexico): In Santa Fe, because of our water conservation efforts, we've had now four straight years of growth with no increase in water use.

ROBBINS: How long that growth can continue may be the real issue facing the city. Mayor Coss says he'll use the most endangered river status as a motivator to find ways to grow while sustaining the Santa Fe River.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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