By Christina B. Farnsworth. "Water neutral" is a phrase on many lips in Santa Fe, N.M. And the toilet exchange now taking place in the capital of "The Land of Enchantment" is in lieu of a building moratorium.

Early versions of the much debated toilet exchange threatened to require a ratio of as many as 15 toilets be replaced for each brand-new toilet installed in a new home in order to get a building permit. Mayor Larry Delgado cast the tie-breaking vote in a 4-4 tie of Santa Fe's city council on Aug. 26, 2002, to pass a water budget that makes a new building permit contingent on retrofitting eight, 10, or 12 low-flow toilets in existing buildings (depending on the new construction's lot size).

The idea is that the new-home-plus-toilet exchanges will keep Santa Fe water-neutral--total water use will remain the same as the city grows. Estimates are that the exchange will add $3,000 to $4,000 to the cost of a typical home. (In Santa Fe the median price of a home is $265,000.)

Santa Fe, like much of the Southwest has been facing drought. But many equate the perceived water shortage to NIMBYism. Others see a real and serious problem that will stop growth. The city's population has been increasing a modest 1.5 percent yearly.

Photo: Carl Corey

Its current population is roughly 66,000. Moreover, the community had already called for replacing 10,000 water-guzzling toilets, and as details have been worked out to implement the toilet exchange, some 7,000 toilets have already been replaced.