By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN and BRITTANY PETERSON – Associated Press
LAS VEGAS, NM (AP) — In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, buzzing chainsaws interrupt the serenity. Crews scramble to clear charred trees and other debris that swept away mountainsides in the wake of the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history, choking rivers and streams.
Heavy equipment operators move boulders dislodged by the daily torrential summer rains that followed the blazes.
Workers dug trenches and built barriers to prevent the muddy, ash-laden stream of runoff from causing more damage so as not to further contaminate the drinking water supply of the community of more than 10,000 people which is located at the edge of the forest.
Time is running out for Las Vegas, a college town and economic hub for the ranchers and farmers who have called this rural stretch of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range home for generations.
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He has less than 30 days of drinking water left.
Events have been canceled in a bid to discourage more people from coming to town. Residents shower with buckets in hopes of collecting extra water for other uses. Restaurants are worried about having to cut back on their red and green chili dishes. The three universities that call Las Vegas home develop conservation plans at the start of the school year.
“It’s discouraging for our families and our children not to know that they may not have any water in a month,” said Leo Maestas, city manager.
A few months earlier, thousands of residents of Las Vegas and dozens of surrounding mountain villages had been forced to pack up their belongings, load their livestock into trailers and flee as the wildfire raged, fueled by unprecedented hot, dry winds.
They saw an area larger than Los Angeles devoured by fire from afar triggered by the federal government when two planned burns intended to reduce the threat of wildfire went wrong due to a combination of human error and outdated modeling this did not account for extreme weather conditions. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed and livelihoods lost.
Amid an undercurrent of grief and anger, residents are feeling the sting again as their water supply dwindles accordingly and the pressures of climate change show no signs of letting up.
“I mean, what else could happen?” Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo asked, not wanting to tempt fate.
Trujillo said the community is no stranger to watering restrictions because drought has long been a part of life in northern New Mexico. He and other residents have become adept at using only half the water of the average American, or about 44 gallons.
“So asking citizens to do even more is quite an imposition. It’s very difficult,” Trujillo said, as he prepared for federal emergency officials to arrive with another truckload. bottled water to distribute to community members.
Utility officials were unable to tap into their usual source – the Gallinas River – as it was choked with ash and debris.
Trujillo declared an emergency in late July and the governor of New Mexico followed up with his own statement, releasing funds to help pay for the installation of a temporary treatment system that will use water from a lake neighbor to complete the supply.
City officials expect that system to be installed next week. It will be able to handle about 1.5 million gallons (5.7 million liters) per day, about what the city consumes daily. But that’s just a band-aid, Trujillo said.
Like other Western cities, Las Vegas is on the hunt for alternative water sources as nearby rivers and reservoirs shrink in hotter, drier conditions. The forest fire complicates matters.
New Mexico’s largest city, for example, was forced to stop drawing water from the Rio Grande this year as it dries up within the city limits of Albuquerque. for the first time in decades. And for the second consecutive year, Arizona and Nevada will face cuts in how much water they can draw from the Colorado River as the western drought worsens.
Las Vegas hopes the temporary treatment system will slow the countdown as crews continue to work upstream to prevent more ash, debris and sediment from clogging the Gallinas River that feeds the city’s reservoirs.
Trujillo said a permanent treatment system on the river could cost more than $100 million, well beyond the city’s means. There is no timetable for designing or building such a system.
What is heartbreaking for the mayor is that the area is experiencing one of the best monsoon seasons in several years. If not for the blaze and contamination, the city would have been able to capture storm runoff that crosses the river and bolster its reservoirs for the future as the drought persists.
For Trujillo, his neighbors, the governor and members of Congress, the blame for the current water crisis lies squarely with the federal government.
“We will continue to hold them accountable and expect them to pay for any improvements we are going to have to make,” the mayor said.
Daniel Patterson, a resource adviser with the US Forest Service, called it a comprehensive approach, as the agency works with local authorities to protect the watershed that feeds Las Vegas. He acknowledged the Forest Service’s responsibility to restore the watershed as well as people’s access to their private property and traditional practices like collecting firewood from the forest.
“Those are all top priorities right now,” he said. “But it’s a heavy load and it’s a long ride.”
President Joe Biden flew over the burn scar during a quick visit in June, promising that the federal government would step up. Yet many residents feel abandoned.
Danny Lopez, a rancher just outside of Las Vegas, called the past few months a nightmare. The fire charred nearly a square mile of land where he used to graze his cattle. His fences burned and the roof of his house was scorched, with the damage now made worse by the summer rains.
Its alfalfa fields have been compromised by mud, ash and debris rolling down the surrounding hills. And with the electricity out for months, he and his neighbors lost everything they had stored in their fridges and freezers.
His application for FEMA assistance is mired in bureaucracy, with federal officials requiring something that simply doesn’t exist for many rural properties — a mailing address.
“They don’t understand the devastation,” said Lopez, who was forced to cut his herd in half. “They don’t know how people live here and how they get on.”
Charlie Sandoval is the owner of Charlie’s Bakery Café in the historic plaza of Las Vegas. It served as a gathering place for the community and travelers for decades, made famous for its homemade chili recipes, fresh tortillas and cinnamon rolls.
It takes up to 13 gallons (49 liters) of water to make a big batch of chili. Then there is the water needed for the tortillas and the dough for the pastries.
“Everything we do just takes water,” Sandoval said. “And that really scares me. What would happen if we ran out of water, you know? »
The bakery uses more plastic and paper items to reduce dishwashing. But the supplies are expensive and the bottom line suffers.
If more restrictions are imposed, Sandoval worries about how long he can keep the bakery open and what that could mean for his employees.
In late July, the city implemented Stage 6 restrictions, which means no more outdoor watering, no more filling of pools, restaurants can’t serve water to customers unless requested, and no new accounts. water cannot be activated.
For City Manager Maestas, it was a sleepless month. More than once, he jumped into his van in the middle of the night and rushed to check out a diversion point along the Gallinas River. Standing there, he stares at an impossible decision: If the contaminated river rises fast enough after the monsoon, will it direct the flow towards the city and flood the houses? Or will it further pollute the city’s emergency drinking water supply?
Fear, sadness and then anxiety set in. He wants to make the right decision.
“No city official or government official should ever be put in this predicament,” he said.
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