Crews were closer Tuesday to containing the largest fire in the state’s history after having spent a solid month toiling in some of the steepest and most rugged areas of northern New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains.
But now that summer rains are hitting the burn scar of the fire, ash and debris are starting to wash off mountainsides, down canyons and into the Rio Grande.
That has forced utilities in Santa Fe and Albuquerque to halt their drinking water diversions and rely on groundwater until the river clears up.
In Albuquerque, the water authority stopped pulling water from the river Friday afternoon after it became murky.
“Just from a mechanical and maintenance standpoint, we didn’t want all this ash and crud to get into our system that we then would have to clean out,” said David Morris, a spokesman for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, which serves about 540,000 people.
“We’re not so worried that we can’t treat it,” he said. “We just don’t want to deal with the after effects of having all of this ash in the filtration system.”
The Buckman Direct Diversion project that supplies water to the city of Santa Fe stopped its diversions nearly two weeks ago.
The Las Conchas fire charred more than 244 square miles and destroyed more than five dozen homes after being sparked June 26 when a tree fell on a power line. The fire reduced entire mountainsides and canyons to nothing but ash and blackened tree trunks.
With no vegetation to slow storm runoff, debris is finding its way to Cochiti Lake south of the burn area. Layers of black ash have also been spotted coating some sand bars in the river between Cochiti and Albuquerque.
On the western flank of the fire near Valles Caldera National Preserve, black streams of ash and sediment snake from the burned areas down through green meadows that were untouched by the flames.
At Los Alamos National Laboratory, hundreds of feet of water diversion barriers and sediment collection ponds have yet to be tested, said lab spokesman James Rickman.
The lab worked feverishly for a couple of days earlier this month to prepare for flooding from the burn scar but some areas around Los Alamos have received only scattered rain.
Water quality monitoring stations on lab property are taking samples, but nothing unusual has turned up, Rickman said.
Environment Department Deputy Secretary Raj Solomon said he planned to talk Tuesday with lab officials about their efforts to ensure any contamination from lab property doesn’t get washed away.
Solomon said his agency also is sending out teams to take samples from the Rio Grande.
“Our focus is where there are sources of drinking water supplies. That’s the primary focus because of the potential impacts to public health,” he said.
The state will be looking for a range of chemicals, metals and other substances. Solomon said test results could take between a week and 10 days.
Teams with the Burn Area Emergency Response program have started doing work within the fire perimeter to prepare roads and culverts for the rains. Bids were put out Tuesday for seeding and mulching in critical areas and that work was expected to start in about a week.
“We’re definitely driving to beat the weather,” said Mike Ferris, a spokesman for the response teams.
Fire managers were reporting 90 percent containment of the fire Tuesday afternoon.
It’s been a month and the fire has been reduced to smoldering pockets here and there, but officials with the state environment department, land management agencies and the water utilities say they expect to be dealing with the fire’s aftereffects for some time.
Both utilities are relying on groundwater pumping to augment supplies until the river clears up.
In Albuquerque, the utility had been diverting between 60 million and 70 million gallons a day from the river before it turned murky. Morris said it’s not clear when the diversions will resume.
“We’re monitoring it on a daily, if not an hourly basis,” he said of the river’s water quality. “We’d like to go back on the river as soon as we can because we’re trying to preserve the aquifer.”
July 26, 2011 1:07 p.m.
After a solid month of battling flames, crews have nearly contained the largest fire in New Mexico’s history.
But as summer rains pound the burn scar of the Las Conchas fire, ash and debris are being washed off mountainsides, down canyons and into the Rio Grande.
That has forced utilities in Santa Fe and Albuquerque to halt their drinking water diversions until the river clears up.
Debris is making its way to Cochiti Lake south of the burn area, and a layer of black ash has been spotted on some sand bars in the river between Cochiti and Albuquerque.
Environment Department Deputy Secretary Raj Solomon says his agency is sending out teams to take samples from the Rio Grande. He says the focus is on sources of drinking water supplies.