Thursday, 03 April 2014 16:18

Santa Fe River/water-supply Canon de Santa Fe

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 Drawing of the Old Stone Dam from” Illustrated New Mexico,” by the Territorial Bureau of Immigration, 1893. Drawing of the Old Stone Dam from” Illustrated New Mexico,” by the Territorial Bureau of Immigration, 1893.

 Rio Santa Fe y Canon de Santa Fe—Santa Fe’s Life Blood

And My Personal Misadventures in the River


Arthur Scott

    In 1610 the Spanish colonists (Peralta) that choose the location most likely did so by first and foremost considering the availability of an assumed perennial water supply. Other considerations such as flat arable land (river flood plain) and defensive position against raiding Indians would be secondary.  . Upper Santa Fe Canyon would have provided other resources such as timber, fish, and game. For over four hundred years the water supply of the Rio Santa Fe has met most of the city’s needs. Twice battles for Santa Fe were decided by the river. In 1680 the Pueblo Indians drove the hated Spaniards from the capitol by simply diverting the acequia being fed by the Rio, the city’s single water supply. Thirteen years later De Vargas used the same tactic to conquer the Indians remaining in Santa Fe.

   After the ceding of New Mexico to the United States from Mexico in 1846 and the opening of the Santa Fe Trail for immigration and commerce, the need for potable water increased and as with most water supplies, a competing need for agricultural use.  Santa Fe canyon also served the townspeople as a recreation area and as a homesteading location.

                                                         Drawing of one of the popular spots in Santa Fe Canyon, from “New Mexico Illustrated” by,

Territorial Bureau of Immigration, 1893.

   All of the following photographs, illustrating the early 1900’s Santa Fe Canyon were taken from Frost, Max and Walter, Paul A. F., 1906, The Land Of Sunshine, New Mexico Bureau Of Immigration  The Land of Sunshine by the Territorial Bureau of Immigration which was published in 1906 to be distributed at the Louisiana Purchase exposition in Saint Louis in 1906. The publication was designed to lure eastern state immigrants to New Mexico by documenting mining and agricultural opportunities and to dispel the notion that the Territory is a desolate, dry desert by using many photos of streams, reservoirs, dams, and artisan wells.


Pre 1903 Santa Fe canyon homestead (author’s assumption) from Territorial Bureau of Immigration  publication. Later editions identify photo on right as “Perry Ranch near Santa Fe.”

Most likely Two-mile reservoir completed in 1893. Same source as noted above.

Location unknown.  Same source as noted above.


                                 Location unknown. Same source as noted above.

   The following is excerpted from “A Cultural Resource Reconnaissance and Historical Overview of 4.27 acres in the City of Santa Fe Including the Canyon Road Hydro Electric Plant (1209 Canyon Road), Santa Fe County, New Mexico”  prepared for Victor Johnson, Architects by Thomas Merlin, Thomas Merlin and associates. This report was prepared for the city in 2008 in preparation of establishing a new city park. By way of summary from 1880 they state by way of an introductory summary:

   “Historical research, presented in this report, showed that in 1880 the commissioners of Santa Fe County granted to a private corporation, the Santa Fe Water and Improvement Company the “exclusive right and privilege of erecting dams and reservoirs, and impounding water on the River of Santa Fe.” A successor corporate owner, the Water and Improvement Company, built the hydro-electric plant (1209 Canyon Road) in 1894. The Water and Improvement Company was controlled by a Chicago investment firm, the Municipal Investment Company. The Water and Improvement Company and its assets were subsequently sold to Charles F. Street of New York City in 1900. In 1900 as well, the Santa Fe Water and Light Company was incorporated by Charles Street and others, and absorbed the assets of the Santa Fe Electric Company, the Santa Fe Gas and Electric Company, and the Water and Improvement Company. The principal franchise asset of the Santa Fe Water and Light Company was the franchise originally granted by the County Commissioners in 1880 to the Santa Fe Water and Improvement Company. Accordingly, Santa Fe’s water was controlled by corporations in Chicago and New York for more than half a century. Santa Fe’s water finally returned to the control of a New Mexico corporation, Public Service Company of New Mexico, in 1946. PNM acquired all the assets of the Santa Fe Water and Light Company, including the hydroelectric plant – which had probably been abandoned since at least 1943.”

My Personal Adventures and Some Misadventures in the Santa Fe River

      When I was a child in the 1940’s we lived on East Palace Avenue. Our lot extended from East Palace to the Alameda. The front of the house was on Palace but the drive in entrance was on the Alameda. Across the street were the chamisa covered banks of the Santa Fe River. This reach of river included a huge (about two feet) sandstone waterfall. And most enticing of all to a budding civil engineer at age seven or eight, there was a concrete ford to cross the river. Normal flow over the ford was about two or three inchesat the deepest unless there was heavy rainfall runoff or reservoir releases.  However, we learned early on that the concrete road bed made an excellent dam foundation. River cobbles provided building materials. Suddenly we had a one-foot deep swimming hole! This was also probably one of many undocumented and unregistered dams on the Santa Fe River.

   Of course, each of us had been cautioned and warned time and time again about the dire poisonous properties of the Rio including the poison and bacteria laden masses   contained in each drop of water. “NEVER, EVER, go near the river,” was preached over and over. Of course it was not mentioned that this was our city water supply. And when I enquired, about this time, why we could drink water right out of Cow Creek at our Ranchito in the Upper Pecos, I was told by my mother that my father “had the water tested,” it was deemed safe and that mountain streams “purified” themselves every hundred feet of flow.  I suppose this did not consider the twenty cows pastured on the river about a mile upstream. Nor use of the creek by deer, elk, and other wildlife. However, there must be something to it as I am writing this almost seventy years later after drinking, cooking, and washing with Cow Creek water for the first ten years of my life.

  Now, being obedient children, the first place we headed on hot summer days was to dam the Rio. One particular day is etched into my memory, the day I cut my foot on a broken bottle in the river bed. I was filled with mixed emotions. I knew I faced certain death from the contact with the “FILTHY” water; my foot was bleeding rather profusely so I knew that I faced certain death from blood loss; but, most worrisome of all, I had to tell my mother that despite her warnings, I was wading in the Rio and that most certainly meant instant death. I wisely chose the latter which involved a “pobrecito Pedrito,” an “I told you so” lecture and worse than death to an eight year-old, a half bottle of straight Iodine poured on the wound. By the way, I proudly wear the scar on the bottom of my foot to this day.

   I am certain this incident started me on my chosen career path and resulted in an intimate relationship with Santa Fe Canyon,. Some eleven or twelve years later I was paid to wade the Rio up in the canyon to make monthly discharge-measurements of flow above below and between the reservoirs and also record the elevation of each reservoir. As I recall, Two-mile, Nichols, and McClure were all in operation.  At that time I was a Hydrologic Field Technician for the US Geological Survey, Surface Water Branch. After college with a degree in civil engineering, I was still wading streams in many states and US territories and did so, figuratively or actually, for a total of 37 years with the USGS.

A Timeline

The following is excerpted from a complete timeline of the Santa Fe water system give in  “A Cultural Resource Reconnaissance and Historical Overview of 4.27 acres in the City of Santa Fe Including the Canyon Road Hydro Electric Plant (1209 Canyon Road), Santa Fe County, New Mexico”  prepared for Victor Johnson, Architects by Thomas Merlin, Thomas Merlin and associates. I am including only those items that I feel are significant and interesting. 

In 1880SantaFehadapopulationof6,635[Cumiford1977:3].

1881-the Santa Fe Water and Improvement Companyf ailed. Another corporation,the SantaFeCity Water Works, bought its assets. Records show that this company had been incorporated on December 29,1879 by L.Spiegelberg, W.Spiegelberg, B.Seligman,Antonio OrtizySalazar and W.L.Waldo.The inception of the two corporations on the same day suggests that the two groups of businessmen were  in competition for the franchise. (Author’s note: B. Seligman above is Bernard Seligman, my great grandfather.)

   The  Santa Fe City Water Works buiilt the first dam in Santa Fe Canyon about two miles upstream from the city plaza. Old Stone Dam, built of stones stacked 28 feet high,45 feet wide at the base,created an 800-foot-long reservoir holding about 25 acre-feet of water (8million gallons plus). 10-inch cast iron pipe carried water in to the town. This was the first attempt by the city to control the river. The sudden appropriation of the citys water, always known up to this time as public property, by a private entity caused protest. In June 1881 the Daily New Mexican reported that “a party of Mexicans”– meaning Hispanic people in town-had stopped pipe-laying work and had  to be  disarmed by Sheriff Romulo Martinez. The designation by an Anglo newspaper of the traditional inhabitants of SantaFeas, somehow, foreigners or inferiors was a fitting match for the inexplicable transformation of the public’s water into private property. A letter to the Daily New Mexican the following month  expressed the puzzlement and the bereavemen to many Santa Feans:

“We, the majority of the people of SantaFe, declare and maintain that where as we have been entitled to the water in the Santa Fe River since the conquest of this country, have used it for the purpose of irrigating our fields and quenching the thirst of our families, that the water has been given to us by the sublime will of God…Resolved that the people of Santa Fe will by al llegal means cause the said waterworks company to stop abusing and appropriating the rights belonging exclusively to the people, will prevent their converting the same to their own pecuniary welfare, leaving the community helpless and subject to their charity, and depriving them of all the sacred rights which nature has given them merely to satisfy ambition.”[Plewa2007:101]


   “The majority of the people of Santa Fe ” appears to be readily decipherable code for Hispanics. Protests continued for sometime–in 1883 protesters smashed pipes and diverted water back in to the riverbed [Tobias andWoodhouse2001:44]

Santa Fe Gas and Electric Company propose a hydro-electric plant to replace the Steam plant at Water Street and Don Gasper.

1882- Santa Fe Water and Improvement Company buys back its original assets.


1882-(March 31)-water begins to flow to city residents through the mains.


1883-instance of smashed pipes and diversion of water back into the riverbed,


1891-Municipal Investment Company of Chicago buys assets of The Water and Improvement Company.


1893-Old Stone Dam's storage proves too small, and Two-Mile Dam is built several hundred yards downstream. 


1894-Water and Improvement Company of Santa Fe builds hydro-electric plant (1209 Canyon Road). Two Pelton water wheels drive an electric   generator using belts. Water is discharged into settling and service reservoirs and piped to users. The new hydroelectric plant generates about 100 kilowatts, or four times as much as the  steam generator.


1900-Santa Fe Water and Light Company incorporated, Principal owners are in New York.  Absorbs assets of  the Santa Fe Electric Company, the Santa Fe Gas and Electric Company and Santa Fe Water and Improvement Company.


1904-heavy flood fills Old Stone Reservoir with sediment, making Two-Mile the city’s only functioning reservoir.  


1907-Territorial legislature establishes office of Stare Engineer; orders survey of existing surface water and adjudication of water rights.


1910-population decreases to 5,072.



View of hydroelectric plant, ca. 1915. (Taken from area Historical Survey by Thomas Merlin and associates. Source not given)


1919-State Engineer completes hydrographic survey of the Santa Fe River including census of each acequia. This survey shows that there are about 1200 acres of green gardens, orchards, and fields of wheat, oats, alfalfa, and corn, irrigated by 38 ditches.


1920-After various changes of ownership, the sawmill built by the U. S. Army un 1847 is bought by artist Randall Davey, who lives there until his death in 1964.


1920-hipped roof of plant and upper half story removed to give the building a Pueblo Revival appearance. Exterior brick covered with cement plaster.


1926-1928-Graoite Point Dam built (Subsequently renamed McClure Dam initial capacity 650 acre feet, subsequently in three stages to 3,325 a/f.


c. 1926-Talaya Reservoir becomes the water supply for the surrounding higher elevation section 'of Santa Fe, which can’t be efficiently supplied from the primary water distribution system.


1930-population of Santa Fe is 11,176.


1932-Secretary of Agriculture (U. S. Forestry Service) orders watershed closed to public use above Randall Davey estate.


1940-population of Santa Fe is 20,325.


1943-Nichols Dam and reservoir were constructed. Service ditch to power plant is abandoned. Power plant may also be abandoned around this time.


1946-Public Service Company of New Mexico is incorporated as a public for-profit corporation headquartered in Albuquerque. It acquires all three dams and reservoirs. Sangre de Cristo Water Company, a subsidiary of PNM, is charged with managing Santa Fe’s water system including reservoirs and treatment plant in the canyon, the Santa Fe well field, and the Buckman well field.


1950-population of Santa Fe is 28,000.


1961-70-PNM carries out  a diversion of water from the San Juan-Chama Project, brining water across the Continental Divide to the Rio Grande, and giving Santa Fe rights to 5,605 acre feet per year, about half the flow.   


1970-hydroelectric plants service basin is replaced by a 5-rnillon gallon tank which now serves as the final reservoir and flow regulator into the distribution system.



1971-Adjudication titled Henry P. Anaya v. PNM and the State of New Mexico ex. rel. New Mexico State Engineer at. al., D-101-CV-7143347 filed by a large number of individual water rights claimants to obtain judicial determination of the rights in the Santa Fe River Stream System. Association of Santa Fe Acequias is formed to support efforts of the Acequia Madre de Santa Fe Communality Ditch Association and Acequia Cerro Gordo Community Ditch Association to acquire funds to defend their rights in the Santa Fe River Stream System.


1975-modern water treatment plant built on Upper Canyon Road opposite Two Mile Reservoir.


1977-There are seven functioning ditches in Santa Fe.


1978-Two Mile Dam declared unsafe.


State Engineer Office completes hydrographic survey of ground water and surface water uses in the Santa Fe River system.


1980-population of Santa Fe is 49,299.


1989-Acequia Madre and Acequia Cerro Gordo are joined to the Anaya adjudication. PNM takes position that it owns all water rights in the stream system and opposes having to release any water to the ditches, which in turn assert a right prior to that of PNM.


1990-Judge Art Encinas orders the water company to release water into the Acequia Madre and Acequia Cerro Gordo. Encinas  finds that the rights of the ditches antedate PNM.


1992 – 94-Two Mile Reservoir is drained and the dam breached.


1995-city of Santa Fe buys Sangre de Cristo Water Company fro PNM. Among assets acquired by the City is the Canyon Road hydroelectric power plant. PNM retains 188 acres including the Old Stone Dam and Two Mile Dam.


2000-PNM donates 188 acres, including Old Stone and Two Mile Dams to the Nature Conservancy.


Population of Santa Fe is 62,200.


2003-ther are four functioning ditches in Santa Fe; Acequia Madre, Acequia Cerro Gordo, Acequia de la Muralla,  Acequia del Llano.


Santa Fe water use is about 12,000 a/f per year. Santa Fe River provides 41 percent, Buckman well field about 42 percent, and the in-city well filed about 17 percent.


2008-Henry P. Anaya et. al. v. PNM is still an active case.                    


 Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress, Photos and Prints.

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