How New Mexico’s Largest Wildfire Set Off a Drinking Water Crisis
Heavy monsoon rains would normally be cause for celebration in the drought-parched mountains of northeastern New Mexico, where the Rockies meet the Great Plains, especially after the largest wildfire in state history came within a mile of torching the region’s largest community this spring.
But not this year, when fears of running out of fresh water forced officials to cancel an annual arts and crafts fair that draws thousands of visitors in Las Vegas, N.M. All over this town of 13,000 people, carwashes are closed. Swimming pools are empty. Restaurants are serving food on paper plates. And the gushing skies are no help.
Instead of replenishing reservoirs, the downpours are flooding a burn scar left by the blaze known as the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire, releasing contaminants into private wells and overwhelming Las Vegas’s main water supply with ashy sludge.
It is the latest chapter in a catastrophe created by the federal government when Forest Service employees lost control of not just one but two prescribed burns set this spring to clear out undergrowth. That sparked a vast blaze that destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced thousands of people across a fire zone larger than the city of Los Angeles.
But with the megafire finally declared 100 percent contained in late August, the aftermath has been almost as bad as the blaze itself, echoing a crisis that recently left 150,000 people in Jackson, Miss., without safe drinking water when the city’s already troubled system was pushed to the brink by heavy rains.
“First it was drought, then the fire, then the floods, then the water shortage,” said Isaac Sandoval, a Las Vegas resident and restaurant owner. “What’s next?”
At one point this month, Las Vegas, a hub for predominantly Hispanic rural communities in one of the nation’s poorest states, had only about 20 days of fresh water left. Authorities scrambled for fixes while introducing measures to curb water consumption, forcing usage down to about 44 gallons per person per day — about a third of what the town used before the fire.
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For a place that had been shaping itself into a tourist destination, with a new French-owned contemporary art center and the reopening of an iconic Harvey House hotel, the aftershock of the water crisis has been unsettling.
To conserve, Mr. Sandoval’s restaurant, the Skillet, shifted to serving dishes like brisket tacos and green chile fries on paper plates, accompanied by disposable utensils.
“It’s like, ‘Oh cool, now we have all this trash we have to deal with,’” said Mr. Sandoval, who employs 25 people. “But this is now the cost of running a business. This is a problem we’ll be dealing with for years to come.”
At the same time he was scrambling to cut water use, floods hit his parents’ home outside of town, and more flooding remains a constant threat. Within the city limits, some residents and businesses have deployed sandbags to protect their properties, fearing that the deluges could wreck parts of town.
Wildfires can dramatically alter the natural flow of water, leaving the ground charred while destroying the vegetation that absorbs rainfall and reduces runoff. In areas that are severely burned, it can take years for trees and other vegetation to be restored to a level that reduces flood risks.
In the meantime, protecting Las Vegas’s drinking water will be difficult and expensive — with federal, state and local resources all being drawn on to shore up the system. The cost further highlights the demands that climate change is placing on communities across the country, as they deal with an onslaught of more intense and frequent droughts, storms, wildfires and other disasters.
With erosion debris now flowing into the watershed surrounding Las Vegas after each storm, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built catchment nets along the nearby Gallinas River in an effort to prevent rocks and trees from damaging the infrastructure that delivers river water to filtration systems.
At the same time, the town’s main reservoir was filled with so much contamination that it wasn’t clear whether the existing treatment system could make the water safe to drink. Scrambling to find another source, authorities are using $2.5 million in emergency state money to provide clean water from an artificial lake built a century ago on the town’s edge.
So far, officials say the system is working, but only as a stopgap measure for the next three to four months. Mayor Louie Trujillo said the town was also looking at installing a new filter on the river that supplied water to Las Vegas’s reservoirs — but that fix would also be temporary.
The only way to secure the town’s water supply over the long term, Mr. Trujillo said, involves replacing its entire water filtration system. He estimated it would cost about $100 million — an astronomical sum in a town where 32 percent of the population lives under the poverty line.
Before the water crisis, many people in Las Vegas and nearby communities were already furious at the federal government for starting the fire.
The backlash forced a temporary stop to prescribed burns, and an internal Forest Service inquiry found that some of its employees in New Mexico felt they were under pressure to carry out plans — despite concerns over exceptionally windy, bone-dry conditions.
The inquiry also determined that nearby automated weather stations were offline at the time a burn was set, and that firefighters from different agencies were using separate radio frequencies, which hindered communication when the blaze got out of control.
In a brief visit to New Mexico in June, President Biden expressed support for a plan for the federal government to cover losses related to the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire. Legislation to provide such compensation for residents and business owners won approval in July in the House and is now awaiting action in the Senate.
Senator Ben Ray Luján, Democrat of New Mexico, said passing the legislation was his top priority. “The federal government started the largest wildfire in our state’s history,” he said, “and has a moral obligation to fully cover the recovery costs New Mexican families still face.”
Still, the bill would not cover state or local infrastructure projects such as the overhaul of the water system, and it is clear that the local governments lack the funding for such a project.
Katherine Schneider, a spokeswoman for Mr. Luján, said that while state and federal funding is paying for temporary measures, the senator and others in New Mexico’s congressional delegation were working to “find and secure the necessary, long-term investments” to rebuild the water system for Las Vegas.
Mr. Trujillo, the mayor of Las Vegas, emphasized that the federal government, which was responsible for starting the fire, should cover the costs of securing the town’s water supply over both the short and long term. “We intend to bill them for every cent,” he said. “I’m having to hold their feet to the fire, no pun intended.”
Las Vegas is far from the first place to see its drinking water endangered by fire. Andrew Whelton, an engineering professor at Purdue University, found that several blazes from 2017 to 2020, including the Echo Mountain and Lionshead fires in Oregon and the CZU Lightning Complex and Camp fires in California, had rendered drinking water systems unsafe for hundreds of thousands of people.
The pollution that infests those systems can include everything from silt and natural debris to asbestos, heavy metals, radioactive isotopes and other harmful contaminants released when man-made structures burn. Even parts of the wells themselves can decompose and release carcinogens as wildfires rage around and over them.
“With the wildfires happening out West, no utility should be out there thinking that it’s not going to happen to them,” Mr. Whelton said.
Outside of Las Vegas, Scott Frost owns a company that operates small water systems for rural communities in the fire zone. He and his employees have been flushing and disinfecting one well after another in recent weeks.
Supply-chain delays are hindering the work of rebuilding the water systems, he said, which could force authorities to truck in water to families living around the burn scar.
“That means it’ll be January or February, the coldest, most-prone-to-freezing, hardest-to-get-around months of the year, when we’re going to be hauling water around in trucks,” Mr. Frost said. “That is not going to be any fun.”
Often, the people who need his help also had losses from the fire. So sometimes he accepts payment in the form of chickens, or a homemade pie.
“These people have already been kicked in the teeth,” he said. “They don’t need another fat bill.”