State works to protect Las Vegas’ threatened drinking water supply

By: - July 22, 2022 4:00 am

A bicycle that was carried out of a garage in recent flooding near Cleveland, NM, another northern area vulnerable to flooding from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon burn scar. Pictured July 12, 2022. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

The massive fire in the northern part of the state has been threatening the drinking water supply of Las Vegas, N.M., for months now. And though the fire’s nearly out, the problem isn’t going away. The risks of flooding during monsoon season only made it worse, and officials are desperately trying to safeguard Vegas’ watershed.

As of Friday, July 22, at 7:30 a.m.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire has burned over 341,000 acres. 

It is 93% contained.

Kelly Hamilton, deputy secretary for the N.M. Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, described the dire situation for the city with the state’s Legislative Finance Committee on Tuesday.

“The people I’ve asked questions about the watershed for Las Vegas tell me that it’s as bad as it gets,” Hamilton said. “It is just simply as bad as it gets.”

He said if the Gallinas watershed, choked with debris, isn’t able to provide safe drinking water to Las Vegas, the state would have to manually move over 1 million gallons of water to the city every day — but there aren’t enough people available to do that.

How much water?

The city of Las Vegas uses between 1.2 and 1.8 million gallons of water every day, Hamilton said.

“If we don’t keep that watershed and their water supply in Storrie Lake in as good a shape as we can and mitigate those (fire) efforts, then we’re hauling water to them as a state,” Hamilton said. “And that’s a lot of water to haul daily, and we simply don’t have the capacity to do that.”

The state is using money allocated from the federal government to preserve existing water infrastructure, he added. Every day, Hamilton said, experts from a variety of state departments work with federal agencies to protect the Gallinas watershed, setting up barriers and netting to hold material and dirt in place.

Sen. Bobby Gonzales (D-Ranchos De Taos) asked whether the state has considered drilling wells.

“There is nothing off the table as we move forward,” Hamilton said, “because we know the other option is moving 1.8 million gallons of water a day in some fashion.”  He said the state is weighing drilling new wells or rehabilitating old ones, as well as using pipelines to pull a water supply from elsewhere.

Flooding hasn’t yet been added to the disaster declaration for the northern fire, and the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management plans to ask the governor to add it in light of the threat.

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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.