Pueblo Gov. Walter Dasheno declared the emergency after receiving authorization from the tribal council Wednesday night.
Flooding of the canyon has become a major problem since last year’s Las Conchas Fire. The affects of the fire left the soil in a hydrophobic condition, meaning little rainfall can be absorbed into the ground. Instead, the runoff flows into the canyon, causing flash floods like the ones that occurred last week and again Wednesday night.
Dasheno said the latest incident created a wall of water that measured about 6 feet high in some places.
“The canyon has totally been affected by this last runoff,” he said. “There’s been a compromise of the roads and creek beds in the area, so we face a new challenge today.”
No structures were damaged by the latest occurrence, but the tribe’s government building and senior center were evacuated due to a gas line exposed by the flood. In addition, Dasheno said 15 tribal members were asked to evacuate their homes and seven complied.
The pueblo, with a population of about 3,100 people, is located at the mouth of the canyon. About half of the community’s residents, and the tribal administration building, senior center, adult day care center and day school, are susceptible to flooding with the canyon in it’s current state.
Prior to Wednesday’s rain, only one of four retaining ponds constructed to capture the flow was functional. Dasheno said late Thursday afternoon that one is now full of sand and sediment.
“At this point, there’s nothing that can hold what comes down the canyon. If there’s another rainfall, we’ll definitely be affected,” he said.
The water isn’t the only threat, Dasheno said.
“It’s not just the water that’s coming down, you have to consider the debris — trees and logs,” he said.
The latest rainfall also caused a gas line buried in the creek bed to become exposed. According to a press release, New Mexico Gas Company told the tribe that the lines are required to be buried a minimum of four feet underground. The extreme runoff, which Dasheno said was estimated at 2,000 cubic feet per second, was enough to unearth the lines.
“This gas line incident is a perfect example of the number of things we’re dealing with because of the burn scar flooding from the Las Conchas Fire,” Dasheno said.
The pueblo hosted U.S. Sen. Tom Udall on a tour of the canyon last Saturday. The governor said the same area the senator visited is now inaccessible.
“All of that has been destroyed. There is no longer a road there,” he said. “Everything was compromised, including some heavy equipment. When you have that kind of force of nature, there’s nothing that can withstand that.”
As of 5 p.m. Thursday, Dasheno was still waiting for an assessment team to return and provide him with a full report.
“We’ll probably have to remove trees and we know of a huge boulder that has been washed down,” the governor said. “We’ll check the road to see if it is sound and safe. If not, we’ll have to rebuild the road.”
Federal dollars sought
Dasheno appealed to Sen. Udall last Saturday for the release of federal money to assist with restoration of the canyon. While nearly $31 million in FEMA funding has been proposed, only about $379,000 has been approved and much of that has already been spent.
Every time there’s another flood occurrence in the canyon, the cleanup essentially has to start over again.
“We’re going to have to continue this effort,” Dasheno said. “As we go about this challenge we know we’ll have another rainfall in the very near future and we’ll have to go through the process again.”
The emergency declaration allows the pueblo to seek emergency funds from FEMA and other agencies to hasten the cleanup and restoration efforts.
“Once we make the declaration, it’s submitted to Gov. Martinez. Hopefully, she’ll support this and we’ll be able to access funding,” Dasheno said, adding that final approval for the release of funds would have to come from President Obama.