Governor pledges $100 million to Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire recovery

Funding needed to ensure clean drinking water for the region’s largest city

By: - January 18, 2023 4:32 am

The view from Highway 518 on the way to Mora, N.M. on June 13, 2022. (Photo by Bright Quashie for Source NM)

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday asked lawmakers to dedicate $100 million of the state’s operating budget to help communities in northern New Mexico devastated by wildfires and subsequent flooding last year.

“We will be delivering $100 million for communities affected by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire,” she said. “I propose that we make sure that that fund is available so people can begin rebuilding — their lives, their homes, their infrastructure — without waiting for the federal government’s investments to be distributed.”

The remarks came during the governor’s annual State of the State, her fifth and the first in-person since the 2020 session. The speech allowed the governor to address the state’s lawmakers and lay out her priorities for how the state’s budget will be spent.

The governor did not specify how the money would be allocated, how dollars distributed to local governments could be spent or whether funds would go to helping individuals rebuild homes lost in the fire. These are just some of the issues lawmakers will debate during this 60-day legislative session.

Nora Meyers Sackett, press secretary for Lujan Grisham, told Source New Mexico the aim of the $100 million is to put those funds into “reimbursable local projects,” and that the ultimate idea is to have federal money cover the expense once the reimbursement process is completed.

During her address to lawmakers, Lujan Grisham made it clear that federal recovery funding is something she intends to keep pushing for.

In the foreground is a blurry flag and flowers. Focused in the foreground is Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham who pauses while giving her State of the State speech before the joint session of the 2023 New Mexico Legislature in Santa Fe.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pauses while giving her State of the State speech before a joint session of the 2023 New Mexico Legislature in Santa Fe on Tuesday, Jan. 17. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

After acknowledging the work done by New Mexico’s federal delegation to secure $2.5 billion in relief funds — plus another $1.45 billion later as part of the spending bill — Lujan Grisham vowed to battle officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ensure resources will be distributed to people in the areas that need it most.

“Let’s make sure we’re taking care of them now, and if FEMA wants a fight, by the governor and the Legislature of the State of New Mexico, bring it,” Lujan Grisham said.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire began as two separate fires ignited by the U.S. Forest Service that merged in late April to become one out-of-control blaze, then grew rapidly until it was the largest in state history. It burned more than 530 square miles of land, displaced many residents and destroyed at least 500 homes. Floodwaters rolling down the scorched hillsides of the burn scar continued to devastate communities below for months.  

Las Vegas, N.M. Mayor Louie Trujillo told Source New Mexico that recovery from the fire is still ongoing, with the biggest issue being available and clean drinking water.

Late last year, Congress allocated an additional $140 million for the city’s drinking water as part of its $1.7 trillion spending plan. And though Las Vegas intends to apply this money to replacing and reconfiguring its system in the future, Trujillo said that uncertainties about drinking water today continue to concern the residents of Las Vegas.

“Water scarcity is an issue. We don’t know what the Gallinas (River) is going to produce this year, or how much of that water we’ll be able to use with the current filtration system that we have now,” he said. “Then the fact that the fire rendered our current treatment facility almost useless, because it was built around the pristine water that was coming down the Gallinas. It wasn’t built for the damaged water that’s coming down the river today.”

Burned Area Emergency Response Team specialists assess a culvert in the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon burn scar.
Burned Area Emergency Response Team specialists assess a culvert in the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon burn scar. (Public domain photo via BAER)

Following the fire, an above-average monsoon season dumped large amounts of rainwater on the charred soil, which led to widespread flooding across San Miguel and Mora Counties. That flooding sent debris and ash into the Gallinas River, turning the river black at one point.

Last fall, Las Vegas’ available water supply was so low that the city informed residents there was only enough drinking water to last 21 days. Funds allocated by the state alleviated strains by allowing the city to set up a temporary filtration system that turns water from nearby Storrie Lake into drinkable water.

The fire also destroyed homes in Las Vegas, N.M., and displaced many families. Trujillo said he did not have an accurate way of knowing how many people left permanently.

“There were families that were brutally affected by the fires, and I don’t know if they’re going to rebuild,” he said.

Trujillo estimated that the city would need around $40 million to complete the top rebuilding projects the city is considering, including a permanent resolution to securing clean drinking water. He hopes to have all the projects completed in four to five years, even though he said others estimate it could take upwards of 10 years to complete them all.

“I’m being very optimistic, and I’m being very very pushy,” he said. “If someone tells me ‘that’s going to take an entire year,’ I say let’s do it in six months, because that’s the way we have to approach this.”

San Miguel County Manager Joy Ansley said she has been working on getting grants through FEMA to address the county’s most urgent projects. That process is already underway, at least for the biggest efforts, and Ansley said she’s concerned about the possibility that state funding could slow down the process.

“I would want to make sure that the reimbursements don’t cancel each other out, because I don’t think the federal government and the state government are going to reimburse us for the same projects,” she said.

Ansley said that while more funding is welcome, the county’s bigger need is finding contractors that can perform the extensive work that’s needed to repair the county’s damaged roads and drainage systems.

“The amount of damage is beyond our capacity to remedy on our own,” she said. “You could throw all the money in the world at us, but unless we have somebody to go out and rebuild the infrastructure, it doesn’t do any good.”


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Ryan Lowery
Ryan Lowery

Ryan Lowery is an award-winning independent journalist based in Albuquerque. He covers politics and criminal justice and has reported on New Mexico for the Las Vegas Optic, Santa Fe Reporter, Los Angeles Times and others. Lowery was awarded the 2020 William S. Dixon First Amendment Freedom Award from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, and the 2021 Sunshine Award from the New Mexico Press Association for his reporting that highlighted lack of transparency from multiple government agencies.