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Water May Be a Wet Blanket to New Growth

Population: As supply dwindles, the City Council considers a divisive proposal to ban all commercial and residential construction.


SANTA FE, N.M. — The repercussions of a severe drought are being felt here in ways beyond parched lawns turning brown and the installation of thousands of low-flush toilets.

At stake is the very growth of this singular capital city, known for its historic plaza, chic art galleries and archetypal adobe homes--and which is now starved for water.

On Wednesday, the City Council will debate a divisive proposal to immediately ban all residential and commercial construction because some residents are wary of sharing with newcomers what little water they have.

"We're fighting to keep our plaza, our football fields, our parks, from dying," said Jerilou Hammett, who has lived here 25 years and with her husband publishes a local design and architecture magazine. "To allow more construction--and to use our last ounces of water for someone else's new home by taking water from our existing residents--simply doesn't make sense."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 10, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 382 words Type of Material: Correction
New Mexico drought--A map of New Mexico that appeared in Section A on Monday was incorrect. An arrow erroneously located Santa Fe, the site of a water-use debate, too far north. Santa Fe is on Interstate 25, 55 miles northeast of Albuquerque.

Until now--because the town is only growing by about 2% a year--there has been little debate about growth. But even that slow building pace is threatening to eclipse the city's ability to provide water for new hookups. Last year, the city issued 1,067 residential building permits and 364 commercial permits.

Before Santa Fe became one of the communities hardest hit by the Southwest's lingering drought, the city consumed 16 million gallons a day. About 40% of that water typically came from the city's reservoir, which is expected to be drained within a month because of the lack of snow melt and spring rains. The balance of Santa Fe's water demand is barely met by the daily pumping capacity of the city's two well fields.

The building moratorium was proposed by City Councilor David Coss, who since has found how divided the city is over the issue.

"There's a lot of resentment in town because people can't water their yards and are doing everything they can to save water, but others have made their financial future in the home-building market," Coss said.

"Contractors are telling me, 'This [moratorium] can't be. We'll lose our jobs and our businesses.' And others in the community are telling me, 'Stick to your guns.' "

It's easy to hear both sides of the argument in a town antsy about the drought, and where the usually plush plaza grass looks like matted, celery-green felt.

"I've lost my roses and petunias," said Gloria Gonzales, 58, a local store clerk who has lived here all her life. "I turn off the water as I brush my teeth. I'm drinking bottled water and dirty dishes are piling up in the sink. We've got to stop the growth."

But others, like home builder Jim Borrego, worry that halting growth will punish Santa Fe residents employed in the construction trades.

"These people have had a very good income over the last 10 years and a lot have bought new cars and homes. They've acquired debt," he said. "They're really going to be hurt if construction dries up."

Some residents are using the drought as ammunition to stop growth, Coss said. And Kim Unger, president of the Santa Fe Homebuilders Assn., agrees.

"The drought is certainly giving slow-growthers a rallying cry," Unger said. "There's concern that [slow-growth City Council members] will strike while the iron's hot."

But the precarious water shortage--and the prospect that some taps may actually run dry this month--has made philosophical arguments all but moot, Coss said.

Residents can only water their lawns and gardens once a week--and the City Council is considering banning outdoor watering altogether. Water cops prowl for people who wash their cars or top off their swimming pools on the sly.

The city has spent $1.3 million to provide thousands of reduced-flow toilets and faucets. Officials have urged residents to take a bucket into the shower with them to collect the runoff for garden beds.

Santa Fe is not alone in trying to cope with regional drought. Stringent water conservation campaigns are underway from Atlanta to Aurora, Colo., to Augusta, Maine.

Some cities have taken stronger measures.

In Lafayette, Colo., a city of 23,500 just outside Denver that fills its taps from snow melt, the City Council in May ordered a moratorium on water hookups for new homes because snow levels were 25% of normal.

In northern New Mexico, two small towns--Espanola and Las Vegas--have stopped issuing new construction permits for lack of water, halting all residential and commercial development.

Besides debating a building moratorium, Santa Fe also considered a proposal tantamount to house-by-house water rationing.

But that idea stalled last month, when sheepish finance officers admitted that computer software problems made it impossible to determine how much water is used by individual customers and that water billing was based only on estimated usage.

Another proposal calls for rationing building permits annually, based on the projected availability of water and the development of new water sources. Construction priority would be given to affordable housing.

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