State needs to better fund emergency response to drought, fire and flood, expert group says

By: - October 26, 2022 4:43 am
A massive plume from the Black Fire near a fenced road in June, 2022.

A massive plume from the Black Fire near a fenced road in June, 2022. (Public domain photo via the National Wildfire Coordinating Group)

A newly created group composed of high-ranking state leaders and water experts said the New Mexico Legislature should anticipate more disastrous fires and floods like the state encountered this year – and find a way to make sure there’s money for hard-hit areas during those emergencies.

Mike Hamman, the New Mexico State Engineer and leader of the task force, told an interim legislative committee on Tuesday that the task force – whose members are known as Water Ambassadors – recommends the Legislature create a special fund for emergencies. Marquita Russell, leader of the New Mexico Finance Authority, said disasters aren’t going away, so the state needs to be proactive. 

“We know New Mexico will continue to have emergencies that impact our water. We think that (an emergency fund) needs to be put in place, whether it’s flooding, fires, often both. Make sure that there are some clear strategies for how those dollars get implemented,” she said. “… There just aren’t dollars dedicated to emergencies in the state, yet we have them year after year.”

New Mexico saw the biggest and second-biggest fires in state history this year, followed by destructive floods in both burn scars. The biggest fire, known as the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, burned more than 340,000 acres in northern New Mexico. The second-biggest, the Black Fire, burned 325,000 acres in the Gila Wilderness. 

A work in progress

The group is still finishing up a report summarizing recommendations after at least two meetings a month since June. But they offered a few more at the meeting Tuesday, including:

  • Create a new state agency to help small communities with water infrastructure
  • Help collaboration within regional water systems
  • Increase staff to help rural areas with technical water projects

In the aftermath, small and often rural communities seeking funds to repair water structures are hitting roadblocks at both the federal and state levels. Rep. Susan Herrera (D-Embudo) said that lack of emergency money isn’t limited to just this year. She searches high and low to find emergency funds in her northern New Mexico district. 

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“We’ve all been scrambling around trying to find money, and you can’t find it,” she said. “You cannot find it.”

The task force first met this June to solve the state’s most pressing water challenges, including failing infrastructure, inefficient state spending, how to spend an influx of federal dollars and other issues. The task force includes a who’s who of water experts, including the State Engineer, leaders of state agencies, tribal leaders and others. 

The Water Ambassadors hope to provide input on the state’s 50-year water plan and also push legislation during the upcoming 60-day legislative session. They haven’t come up with exact dollar figures for any of their proposals just yet, Hamman 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.