Editorial: Feds responsible for long-term water upgrades in Las Vegas - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Feds responsible for long-term water upgrades in Las Vegas

If you break it, you buy it.

The Pottery Barn rule applies to more than earthenware. It should also apply to something broken by the U.S. government.

The city of Las Vegas could face serious water problems for a decade resulting from the disastrous decisions of federal officials earlier this year.

Two separate U.S. Forest Service burns ignited the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains in April. The conflagration that became known as the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire burned an area in Mora, San Miguel and Taos counties stretching 45 miles north to south and about 20 miles west to east.

The wildfire — fueled by heavy mixed conifer, ponderosa pine, brush and grass — destroyed and damaged hundreds of homes and structures, becoming the largest and most destructive wildfire in recorded state history.

It also burned thousands of acres in the essential 98-square-mile Gallinas River watershed, from which the city of Las Vegas gets almost all of its water. The diverse watershed that’s one of the most important tributaries of the Pecos River also contributes 90% of the water to Storrie Lake State Park, where Las Vegas owns some water storage space.

So, the wildfire was a double water whammy for the city of about 13,000 people, which had to declare a water emergency in July and implement water use restrictions. Many restaurants have switched to using paper plates, disposable utensils and bottled water; car washes and swimming pools are shut down; outdoor watering is banned; decorative fountains must use recycled water; utility employees are notifying businesses and residents if their water use is above average; and the city is working with big water users such as Highlands University and the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute to conserve water.

Ash in the Gallinas River watershed has forced the city to rely on short-term reservoir storage because the city’s municipal infrastructure can’t treat the turbid, ash-laden water from the mammoth burn scar. Las Vegas has only 63 million gallons of treatable water stored in Bradner Reservoir, amounting to about a 40-day supply.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in late July authorized a total of $2.25 million in emergency money for Las Vegas to buy a new pre-treatment water filtration system. And earlier this summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funded a $7 million project to keep logs and boulders in the fire and flood zone from damaging city water infrastructure west of town. Flood control structures are catching sediment and debris from the Gallinas River, but cleaning the structures is proving to be labor-intensive and will require more federal funding.

Farmers and ranchers in the area are also suffering. State Engineer Mike Hamman issued an order in May restricting irrigation water diversions out of Storrie Lake to preserve the water supply for Las Vegas.

Local water users have agreed to the water restrictions.

State water and agriculture agencies are discussing plans to compensate farmers and ranchers for crop losses because of the lack of irrigation water. Those plans need to be translated promptly into checks. Farmers and ranchers didn’t start either the Calf Canyon or Hermits Peak fire.

The Governor’s Office says the state will seek reimbursements from the federal government for post-fire costs. And it should pursue them aggressively. The water filtration system and flood barriers are just temporary fixes. The main Las Vegas water system is likely going to require long-term, expensive upgrades.

After flying over the perimeter of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire in June, President Joe Biden promised: “We’ll do whatever it takes, as long as it takes.” Biden suggested the federal government has a moral obligation to help the people of northern New Mexico recover.

He’s darn right it does. Our governor should remind the president of that moral obligation often.

In other words, if you break it, you pay for it.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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