Southern NM counties unclear on how to access millions of state dollars to fix disaster damage

Local officials still don’t understand how to get acequias money for recovery, unable to afford repairs until state financial aid is confirmed

By: - December 22, 2022 5:05 am
Trees, many without leaves, stand on snowy cliffs in the Gila National Forest.

The Gila National Forest on Dec. 15, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

The state set aside about $3 million months ago for small, rural counties damaged by the Black Fire, New Mexico’s second-largest wildfire in history. But after miscommunication and confusion, not one county has gotten a single dollar.

After the Black Fire and flooding that followed, counties repaired infrastructure that had to be fixed immediately, like washed out roads. But in some areas, work that should’ve already started — like cleaning up acequias before irrigation season comes in spring — has been left out of the mix until officials can clear up confusion surrounding the state disaster relief dollars.

Over summer and fall, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed fire and flooding disaster declarations for Sierra, Grant and Hidalgo Counties so they can get reimbursed 75% of the money spent on repair work on public lands.

Sierra County is eligible for up to $1.5 million, and Grant and Hidalgo can each get up to $750,000. Any excess funds that aren’t used for the disaster go back to the state’s general fund.

The problem is that officials from Sierra and Grant Counties don’t entirely understand how to get and use that funding.

Local officials report delays and miscommunication from state about funding procedures

David Lienemann is a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM). He said in September, after the natural disasters had largely subsided, the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency looked over damage in Sierra, Catron, Grant, Hidalgo, Luna and Cibola Counties.

A mix of standing and fallen trees without leaves stand on a snowy cliffside in the Gila National Forest.
Trees both standing and fallen in the Gila on Dec. 15, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Only Sierra, Grant and Hidalgo Counties had damage excessive enough to qualify for the emergency state funding, he said. The governor also originally signed flooding funds for Catron back in September, but Lienemann said that money isn’t an option anymore since damage wasn’t bad enough in the county.

“Catron County did not meet the county threshold to qualify for state funding,” Lienemann said. “If they identify additional eligible damages to meet that threshold, they would be eligible to receive funding.”

Another option to consider for those affected by the Black Fire is federal emergency funding. To get that, the total Black Fire damage would have to add up to about $3.4 million, but Lienemann said it only reached about $650,000 — which is $2.75 million short of a federal disaster declaration.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire reached that financial cap because the burn hit much more populated areas whereas the Black Fire damaged a lot of wilderness and rural areas.

Plus, northern New Mexico fire victims are getting money straight from Congress because the federal government is taking responsibility for starting the fire.

The Black Fire was also human-caused, but it’s unclear who started the blaze.

For the southern counties to access the state money, Lienemann said counties and DHSEM have to come to agreements first on work that needs to be done to repair specific damage as well as costs. Then projects can begin.

Acequia steward strains to get help to recover historic southern NM irrigation systems

Flooding continued until September, delaying repair work in these counties. Confusion about state funding is creating even more delays to start more extensive repairs and reimburse the county expenses.

“I was told at the beginning that the process would be slow due to the amount of disasters in that state that were occurring or had occurred in the prior months,” Justin Gojkovich, Grant County emergency manager, said, “but now it does seem that the funding confusion has taken a large role in the timeline.”

Lienemann said DHSEM is in regular contact with counties all around the state recovering from disasters and is always looking for ways to provide better service.

“This has been an extremely difficult fire and flood season that has challenged our agency – which has a significant vacancy rate – and local governments in unparalleled ways,” Lienemann said.

Gojkovich said Grant County has already filed for reimbursement for repairs done to county roads. It wasn’t easy, he said. The county had to turn in its paperwork three different times and waited at least 45 days for a response from the state.

Lienemann said DHSEM is looking over those reimbursement requests now.

Jim Paxon is a county commissioner in Sierra County. He said he’s asked the state repeatedly about the status of the damage assessments but has only been told they’re in review. 

He said Sierra County has been fixing up public roads damaged or destroyed by flooding and keeping track of expenses. But more extensive work will be done only once the state confirms the relief money will actually be coming through, he said.

“The county is not willing to make any commitment to contracts for flood repair without that funding being allocated by the state,” Paxon said.

Lienemann said DHSEM is currently helping Sierra County get construction equipment needed to get more repair work done.

Hidalgo County Manager Tisha Green said she expects to submit reimbursement forms to the state as early as next week. There’s no set timeline on when Hidalgo might get its money, either.

Other concerns

Gojkovich said the counties need to be very careful about fixing up damage. 

“We can’t do any upgrades. We can’t change anything,” he said. “We have to repair exactly how it was.”

This concerns the Grant County manager because he’s not sure exactly how or who at the state will monitor that aspect. If repairs are not done correctly, he’s afraid reimbursements won’t come through at all.

Stanley Brown is Catron County’s interim manager. He said Catron County hasn’t been offered any assistance since the state and federal officials did the fall damage assessment, despite some areas in the county being “overwhelmed with flooding damage” that he said will take years to recover from.

He also said the county is still trying to get state funding approved back last year for flooding. “We’re still trying to get them to turn the money loose from 2021,” he said via email.

He said he thinks DHSEM is just overwhelmed, too.

Do acequias qualify for funding or not?

Gojkovich isn’t sure how to get acequias funding. He said he’s been getting different answers from the state and the New Mexico Acequia Association on if the irrigation channels are eligible for the $750,000 pot.

In Grant County, it would cost around $50,000 to $60,000 to clean up the silt-filled ditches and fix the broken headgate infrastructure. Gojkovich said the acequias don’t have that kind of money, but the county can’t afford to pay for it unless officials know they’ll get the money back.

How to get the funding has been a puzzle for me personally.

– Justin Gojkovich, Grant County emergency manager

Repairs on acequias in Grant County have not started, despite a tight deadline to get work done by spring. An acequia steward in Mimbres, N.M. said repairs should’ve started last month and need to be done by February at the earliest when it’s time to irrigate fields.

There’s some confusion about which acequias exactly can get the money. Only public acequias can get state or federal disaster funding, Lienemann said.

How do private acequias get help?

Paxon said private irrigation district associations in Sierra County are looking for financial help through non-state agencies, like the Sierra County Flood Commission, Sierra County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“Those requests are by the individual landowners and require applications to the appropriate agency,” he said.

But Gojkovich said the New Mexico Acequia Association told county officials they’ll need documented collaboration agreements to move forward in allocating the recovery funding to irrigation systems. This means more documents to file. After he gets memorandums of understanding, he said he’s going to potentially move forward with work on acequias.

Meanwhile, Hidalgo County Manager Green isn’t worried about it. She said she’s already met with people who use acequias and doesn’t have a fear that the state won’t help out with repairs to the irrigation channels. “There’s no reason that any of that should not be reimbursed,” she said.

Gojkovich said a lot of aspects of the disaster recovery process are confusing. The fight to get financial help isn’t new, he added. After prior disasters, he said the county had to fight tooth and nail trying to get aid, too.

“We do want to help people. It’s not like we’re just going to leave them to fend for themselves,” Gojkovich said. “It’s just the red tape that we’ve got to go through is just inflexible right now. And it’s insane how many hoops we’ve been having to jump through.”

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.