Las Vegas needs to modernize technology to keep water safe post 2022 wildfire
The city has at least five years before a new treatment system is set up with federal dollars. State and local leaders are looking into water reuse options due to shrinking supply.
Storrie Lake in Las Vegas, NM. Pictured in May 2022, as the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire burns in the distance. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)
For decades, increased levels of pollutants could be present in the water supply used by thousands in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
This is the message state lawmakers heard on Tuesday from local experts and officials still trying to navigate recovery from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.
They’re figuring out how to keep ensuring that drinking water is safe for people in the northern New Mexico communities.
The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burned in the spring and summer of 2022, scorching over 340,000 acres in northern New Mexico. The U.S. Forest Service caused the two fires that merged to become the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.
Las Vegas utilities director Maria Gilvarry said it will be at least five years until a new water treatment system, funded by the federal government, is fully set up and running.
It’s been over a year since the fire devastated the region and, according to Gilvarry, the water Las Vegas uses could have higher turbidity, which makes it appear cloudy, for decades.
And the local water systems are still producing water that has elevated levels of pollutants and contaminants, said John Rhoderick, director of the water protection division at the New Mexico Environment Department.
This pollution is from the wildfire and subsequent flooding caused ash, debris, metals and other materials to rush into waters that the city uses. Rhoderick said about 14,500 people depend on the Las Vegas public water system.
He said information on contaminants and pollutants will be part of a federally funded report that evaluates repairs and upgrades the city’s water treatment system needs.
The federal government is paying for that report and future work necessary to rebuild the Las Vegas water treatment facility. The city is expecting to eventually get $140 million from the federal government, a responsibility taken for its part in starting the wildfires.
Las Vegas has already gotten some of that money, but Gilvarry said the process to set up the new treatment system will take five to seven years to complete.
“There’s a long process in making sure that what is right for the city of Las Vegas is the right system,” she said. “This is not going to be a rushed decision.”
Meanwhile, Gilvarry said the current system needs improvements. She said it’s very old, with parts dating back to the 1970s, so the city is working to modernize the facility so it continues to treat water adequately in the meantime.
Rhoderick said the city had issues with the facility before the fire, like the high costs of maintaining and operating the system. He said the fire exacerbated the problems and this time now is an opportunity for the city to update old technology for the benefit of the community.
Affordable water system legislation
Rep. Susan Herrera (D-Embudo) said when communities in New Mexico need upgraded or new water systems, lawmakers often recommend ones that are too expensive. She said she’s going to work with Rhoderick to develop legislation to solve this issue.
“The fire really forced things to the surface,” Rhoderick said.
Gilvarry said an updated system will require operators with more advanced expertise, and Las Vegas is already short-staffed in that area.
“We cannot find enough operators to be able to give us the flexibility that we need,” she said.
She said the city is working with Luna Community College to get classes set up in this field, so younger people can get introduced to this work and become future workers.
Rep. Miguel Garcia (D-Albuquerque) said a Luna college program could be a place people come to from all over the state to get specialized water technician training. He said that could solve a lot of the issues the city is facing and better allow legislators to understand how to prioritize water funding.
“I think the opportunity lends itself well, considering what happened with the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak fire,” Garcia said. “I think there’s a big void there. And I think Luna would be ideal.”
Sen. Liz Stefanics (D-Albuquerque), chair of the committee, asked if the New Mexico Environment Department still has water operator programs and certifications. Rhoderick said yes, the agency has brief training and testing, but wants to expand it further.
Recycling treated wastewater
Another issue Rhoderick said existed before the 2022 disaster is limited water options and a changing environment.
He said the New Mexico Environment Department is working with the city of Las Vegas on water reuse, a method to find alternative sources of water as supply continues to decrease amid climate change.
“This is a crucial component for every community when it comes to resiliency — to not have just one single source of water,” he said. “And many, many of our communities are relying exclusively on ground water.”
About 78% of New Mexicans depend on ground water for drinking water, according to the New Mexico Environment Department. Rhoderick said a lot of small communities have wells for their drinking water supply, but they’re in trouble when something goes wrong with the well.
Dwindling water supply is a statewide problem, Rhoderick said, and recycling water can add to existing supplies. He stressed that this method doesn’t replace existing water supplies but helps extend water use longer.
Rhoderick said Las Vegas is looking into treating wastewater so it’s viable to be reused again in wastewater systems or even drinking water systems. He added that there’s still a long way to go to achieve this goal.
Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo told Source NM back in December 2022 that the city plans to use some of the $140 million federal funds to make treated sewage or discharged water drinkable.
There are still limitations on water reuse in New Mexico, Rhoderick said. He said it’s also difficult for people to socially accept putting treated wastewater back into water systems. Environmental advocates have concerns that recycling water in certain ways can harm people’s health.
Gilvarry said the city is looking into modern technologies being developed in other states “to ensure that there is always not just plentiful water but safe water for everybody to drink.”
For now, Rhoderick said the local and state officials in charge of the water reuse project are ready to test out the treatment of the wastewater. He said they won’t put it into the drinking water system quite yet but could reuse it for things like irrigation or watering golf courses in these initial stages.
He noted that the treatment for reuse is expensive, especially considering long-term operations. Rhoderick said Las Vegas would need operators with certain skill sets that can run those treatment centers.
“If you build something they can’t afford to maintain — guaranteed it’s going to fail,” he said.
He said maybe a system that could operate around the state or regionally could be a solution.
“There are communities that could very much benefit from reuse, but they’re not going to be able to financially afford the cost on their own to do it,” he said.
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