Photography ©Quita Ortiz.

Water Conservation in Santa Fe

A Local Perspective

by Quita Ortiz

When I was growing up in the community of Nambé, my family had a private well that would occasionally go dry for a day. We’d drive to my grandma’s house nearby to fill up jugs of water while my dad worked hard to get the well producing again. Our property was surrounded by badlands, and it was always hard to grow anything in our nutrient-poor soil. I give my parents a lot of credit not only for managing to cultivate beautiful xeriscapes (a style of landscape design requiring little or no irrigation) on our property but also for exemplifying what it means to live a water-wise lifestyle.

We didn’t refer to ourselves as water-wise, but we were. We used rain barrels and greywater, because we really needed all the water we could get. Our reverence for the surrounding Rio Nambé watershed and our innate understanding about how our water supply goes up and down in the high desert guided us in knowing how to live in accordance with it.

After a severe drought hit New Mexico in the late 1990s, water scientists realized that what we thought were normal snowpack and monsoon rains in previous years were actually unusually wet periods. This means that drought is the norm, and it’s not going away just because there’s an occasional wet winter.

Lake Peak in New Mexico
Snowpack on Lake Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains forms the headwaters of both the Rio Nambé to the peak’s northwest face and the Rio Santa Fe (Santa Fe Watershed) to the south. Photography ©Quita Ortiz.

The City of Santa Fe’s response to the severe drought was to establish the Santa Fe Water Conservation Office in 1997. Its goal is to inspire city residents to conserve water through education and outreach programs.

The Santa Fe Water Conservation Office helps residents conserve water through its rebate program that encourages residents to invest in water-efficient appliances and convert water-guzzling lawns to xeriscapes featuring drought-tolerant plants. It has established partnerships with organizations and local businesses, such as The Firebird, a locally owned store that offers water-saving irrigation and landscape equipment. Because outdoor landscaping accounts for the majority of Santa Fe’s water use, the city offers homeowners rebates on rain barrels, cisterns and outdoor irrigation equipment they install.

Santa Fe has become one of the most water-wise cities in the nation. In 1995, every Santa Fean used approximately 168 gallons of water per day. Twenty-five years later, that figure dropped to approximately 90 gallons per person daily and has continued to go down. In contrast, the per capita water use in Albuquerque and Las Cruces — both larger and drier cities than Santa Fe — remains above 120 gallons per person per day.

Many think low water use landscapes are nothing more than cactus and rocks, but that couldn’t be further from reality. Xeriscapes are drought tolerant and gorgeous. Photography ©Quita Ortiz.

Another way the Santa Fe Water Conservation Office has incentivized water conservation is by implementing a tiered water-rate structure that increases the cost of water per gallon if consumption exceeds a certain number of gallons per month. It also has established partnerships with local businesses that supply water-saving irrigation and landscape equipment, as noted above. Through an ongoing partnership with the Santa Fe Green Chamber of Commerce, the city has developed pilot projects with restaurants and breweries to help them find ways of reducing their commercial water footprint.

Let’s all continue to raise our water consciousness and make every drop count, so our farmers have enough water to grow healthy, locally-produced food. The water that sustains rivers, forests and wildlife, and supplies local farms, businesses, gardens and homes comes from the same source — highly variable winter snowpack in the mountains. All of us share this valuable resource.

Ski Santa Fe
The snow we ski on becomes the water that we all rely upon. Photography ©Quita Ortiz.
Quita Ortiz

Quita Ortiz is a native New Mexican who resides in the Pojoaque Valley. She’s a writer, photographer, maker, herbalist and avid hiker. Follow her on Instagram to see more Northern New Mexico scenery and learn more about the region’s culture.


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