How Las Vegas got $140 million in pending congressional bill to save its drinking water 

By: - December 22, 2022 4:30 am

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi listens to stories from those affected by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire during a roundtable in Albuquerque in late September. She was joined by Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo, right, and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (Photo by Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)

The northern New Mexico town of Las Vegas plans to use $140 million included in the $1.7 trillion Congressional spending plan to replace and reconfigure its drinking water system imperiled after a huge wildfire this year. 

The money, if Congress passes the spending bill this week, would go toward upgrading the city’s water treatment facility, installing a sediment filter upriver of the city’s reservoirs and building a new system to make effluent water drinkable, Las Vegas mayor Louie Trujillo told Source New Mexico. 

The projects could help the city be better prepared for drought and contaminants than it was before the fire. Even before debris and ash from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire polluted the Gallinas River, the city was often in various stages of drought restrictions, he said. 

“Everybody is used to living on a very, very little bit of water,” Trujillo said Wednesday. “So these projects are really going to help in the future to upgrade the supply of water for the community.”

Las Vegas slowly rebuilds clean water supply, but residents worry about long-term future

The $140 million is part of $1.45 billion in additional aid to victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. It is currently hanging in the balance during Congressional negotiations this week, though members of the New Mexico delegation are optimistic about its chances should Congress reach a deal. 

It is the only individual infrastructure project identified as part of a possible $3.95 billion passed by Congress to compensate victims of the fire, which was the biggest in New Mexico history. 

The blaze began in April as a result of two botched prescribed burns ignited by the United States Forest Service, so the multi-billion-dollar payment is an effort by the federal government to take responsibility for the disaster. 

When an above-average monsoon season hit the burn scar, it caused widespread damage and flooding due to the amount of rain and charred soil. That flooding sent debris and ash into Gallinas River, which is how Las Vegas gets water. The river turned black. 

At one point in early September, Las Vegas had enough clean water to last the town of about 14,000 residents only 21 days, though the situation has since improved. Trujillo and city officials imposed water restrictions that meant restaurants served food on plastic plates and bought bottled water, and crews installed a temporary filtration system at Storrie Lake State Park. 

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez told Source New Mexico on Wednesday that the money for Las Vegas was included in the spending bill due to the project’s high importance and because the Federal Emergency Management Agency was ill-equipped to pay for the type of replacement and prevention required to protect the city’s drinking water supply. 

$1.45 billion more likely coming to victims of Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire

FEMA has a Public Assistance Program designed to help local government and public entities after a wildfire or other disaster. But that program is limited to paying only for replacement of infrastructure directly damaged, Leger Fernandez said. 

“So that would mean that you’d have a system that parts of it were new and other parts were not,” she said. “And so it would just be smarter thinking, long term, to have a complete system that was all reconstructed and was using the latest technology.”

She said a top FEMA official suggested that the best way to fund the new system would be with an act of Congress, rather than the Public Assistance Program. 

Leger Fernandez said she is exploring legislation that would improve the way FEMA handles the aftermath of wildfires, including giving FEMA more flexibility when it comes to helping local governments prepare for future disasters. 

She also said the federal government accepting responsibility for the fire makes the situation in Las Vegas unique, and even lucky. Other communities and watersheds damaged in naturally caused wildfires don’t have access to multi-billion-dollar funds like this one, she said. 

“These communities have something no other communities in the United States have right now,” she said. “They have an act that says (the federal government) will fully compensate you for the losses.”

If the money is approved this week, Trujillo said it will take four to five years to get every component of the system up and running. 

The new systems include a new water treatment plant and pre-treatment filters that will remove contaminants from the Gallinas River before water reaches the plant or Storrie Lake.

Another new part of the system will be a facility built to treat wastewater to standards established by the New Mexico Environment Department that will allow the water to be pumped and blended with Gallinas River water. 

Then it will be stored in city reservoirs before being treated again to be safe to drink, Trujillo said.

The mayor said similar systems are safe and saving water in San Antonio, Texas and cities in California. 

“We’re working with engineers that are familiar with designing this type of filtration system and it would guarantee an upgrade supplying water for Las Vegas,” he said. 

But until then, he said, the city’s drinking water will be contaminated by downstream effects of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire for at least 10 years. Each new monsoon season and spring thaw will bring the potential for more ash or contaminants being carried from the burn scars into the reservoirs.

“We are expecting the quality of the water in the river to vary over a long period,” he said.

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard.