The Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, N.M. on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. The city’s water supply is imperiled by ash carried in from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon burn scar, so customers are being asked to take short showers and turn off the faucet. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)
Residents of the New Mexico city downriver of the biggest fire in state history have been drinking bottled water and eating off paper plates for several months now, an effort to preserve the city’s dwindling clean water supply.
This month, a stopgap filtration system installed in nearby Storrie Lake State Park means the city of Las Vegas is beginning to slowly increase the amount of clean water in storage, an effort city leaders said last week will help them ease water restrictions.
But those leaders also said in a forum last week that they are focused for now on the city’s short-term water future, and residents fear what might come next.
“I feel like it may be a ghost town here, eventually,” Kimberly Ludi, manager of El Rialto restaurant in downtown Las Vegas, told Source New Mexico.
The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire destroyed the fragile Gallinas Watershed, sending debris and ash into the Gallinas River and contaminating nearby bodies of water, including the reservoir for Las Vegas. Since July, the city has imposed water restrictions to reduce consumption. At one point in early September, the city only had enough water to last residents for 21 days.
But since then, the restrictions have worked.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has distributed more than 1 million bottles of water, according to the latest update from the agency, and city residents used 200,000 fewer gallons of water a day than normal, according to Las Vegas mayor Louie Trujllo.
The city recently completed the installation of a $2 million filtration system at Storrie Lake, which treats sedimented water before it’s sent to the Bradner Reservoir. That system, paid for with a state emergency grant, has helped the city build up about 32 days’ worth of clean water, and the number increases each day.
At city restaurants, which were asked to reduce consumption by 10%, customers order bottled water, eat off paper plates and pay an additional fee for increased plastic costs. At hotels, they’re asked to take shorter showers and turn off the faucet when shaving or brushing teeth.
“It really hasn’t been a burden. It’s cut down tremendously on our water usage,” Ludi said, though she noted that the restaurant’s garbage output has about tripled, and there is nowhere to send recyclables.
“Our business hasn’t slowed down. In fact, it’s increased,” she said. “My personal opinion would be it’s because they don’t want to use their water at home for fear of using too much.”
On Sept. 7, Trujllo thanked residents during a livestream for their help reducing water use. The mayor didn’t directly answer questions about the city’s water future, saying his effort is now being spent to move the city out of “Stage 7” water restrictions.
“Once we know we have enough water, we can possibly move to another stage. However, our goal is to get everyone off ‘Stage 7’ as quickly as possible,” Trujillo said. “We do know that the winter is coming. We do have antiquated water lines that will break.”
The water crisis is just the latest issue for the the historic town of 13,000, which has 900 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and is home to New Mexico Highlands University.
The biggest fire in New Mexico history – at 341,000 acres – was started by the United States Forest Service and destroyed much of the surrounding landscape. In the weeks since, floods have torn through the burn scar.
“I worry about the schools because we’ve already gone through so much, you know, with COVID, with the fires, now the flooding,” said Ludi, the mother of a high school sophomore.
City officials said the contamination could afflict drinking water for a decade, and they’ll need to spend millions on a new filtration system to ensure the water flowing from the burnt landscape is free of harmful silt.
Trujillo has placed blame for the crisis on the federal government, saying the city is billing FEMA for every bottle of water given to residents and expecting even more in reimbursements.
The risk to Las Vegas’ water supply has long been known. In 2005, the United States Department of Agriculture released an environmental assessment warning that wildfire posed a major threat to the Gallinas Watershed.
The region’s previous big wildfire — the Viveash fire in 2000 — burned 22,000 acres west of the watershed but still had “substantial impacts” on the water supply, showing up in the Las Vegas treatment plant 22 miles downstream, the report states.
“A fire of Viveash’s magnitude occurring completely in the Gallinas watershed would be disastrous for those who depend on Las Vegas’ water quality,” the 2005 report states.
Julie Tsatsaros, professor of forestry and environmental science at New Mexico Highlands University, said her students tell her they’re used to water shortages and taking steps to conserve. She’s using the crisis as a teaching moment, taking her students to see the filtration system in Storrie Lake next week.
She said the effects of climate change are so dramatic and intense that she’s not sure what could have been done to prevent Las Vegas’ current predicament.
“Climate change really has brought these hotter summers, we’ve had less precipitation, it’s been more erratic,” she said. “We’ve had drought and this really has significantly increased the wildfire chances across the Southwest.”
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