Fire could affect Las Vegas’ water system for years

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Las Vegas could face water problems from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire for the next decade, city and state officials said Wednesday.

The fire has scorched thousands of acres in the Gallinas River watershed, where the northern New Mexico city gets nearly all of its water.

Utilities director Maria Gilvarry told city council that the city’s infrastructure could not handle the cloudy, ash-laden water from the burn scar.

“What we’re seeing coming down the river right now with all this sediment, next year will be logs and sediment,” Gilvarry said. “For years to come, we’re going to have a huge challenge in this community.”

Las Vegas has approximately 63 million gallons of treatable water stored in the Bradner Reservoir – a 40 day supply.

The state authorized a total of $2.25 million in emergency funds for the city to purchase a new pre-treatment filtration system.

City officials said the system could be installed this week.

In the meantime, the city has implemented new water restrictions.

Car washes and swimming pools are closed.

Utility employees notify businesses and residents if their water usage is above average.

Many restaurants have switched to paper plates, disposable utensils and bottled water.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funded a $7 million project to protect the city’s water diversions west of the city from flooding after a fire.

Flood control structures capture sediment and debris that enters the river after rains on the burn scar, said Jim Riesterer, a hydrologist with Glorieta Geoscience consulting the city on post-fire projects.

But cleaning the structures is labor intensive and will require more federal funding.

“Everything has been done to get through the monsoon season, but we all know it’s going to last for several years,” Riesterer said.

The pre-treatment filter system and flood barriers are temporary solutions.

But permanent — and costly — upgrades will likely be needed for Las Vegas’ main water system.

The ash and debris impacted the city’s Peterson Reservoir, which is currently not in use.

New Mexico Department of the Environment Secretary Jim Kenney applauded city officials for their work in providing clean drinking water to residents.

He said “drinking water quality has actually improved” since the fire started.

The city has water storage space in Lake Storrie.

In May, State Engineer Mike Hamman, with the concurrence of local water users, issued an order limiting the diversion of irrigation water out of Lake Storrie.

The order aims to preserve Las Vegas’ water supply.

“It’s been a significant challenge…from an agricultural perspective,” Hamman said.

National water and agriculture agencies are working on how to compensate farmers and herders who have suffered crop losses due to lack of irrigation water.

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