Editor's Note - Coming down the Gallinas

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By Tom McDonald

If you’ve never attended one of the quarterly Gallinas Partnership meetings at Highlands University, I encourage you to do so. I attended my first one a couple of Fridays back — admittedly because I was on the agenda — and found it interesting and educational.

About 50 people showed up for this particular meeting, which included four sets of speakers beginning with wildlife officials Rob Larrañaga and Debbie Pike talking about the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge east of town and the relatively new Rio Mora refuge in Mora County.

The meeting ended with engineer Doug Albin talking about Las Vegas’ water system, including its treatment facilities and reservoirs.

Sandwiched between those informative presentations were yours truly, talking about regional water issues, and Bill Armstrong’s straightforward talk about what to expect when our watershed catches on fire.

Armstrong, as a fire specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, has seen it all when it comes to wildfires in the Southwest. He told us about how recent wildfires have been so much more destructive than in fires past. The Las Conchas fire, he said, burned an incredible acre a second at its peak, because of an increase in fuels.

But he didn’t express any optimism that forest thinning and prescribed burns will do much to offset the damage a wildfire will cause in the Gallinas watershed. Instead, he spoke more to the point that after the inevitable wildfire, rainstorms that lead to flooding and a whole lot of debris and ash coming down the river. He didn’t offer much on how to prepare for it, just that we shouldn’t be surprised when it happens.

In the aftermath of a wildfire, ash, fire retardants, burned brush and trees and other debris litter the landscape. Along comes a rainstorm and all that washes downhill, along with copious amounts of sediment, with little to stop its flow to a canyon’s rivers and streams. As it heads downstream, at a dangerously rapid pace, it creates floods all along the way. And when the water finally settles somewhere — in ponds, bottomlands, reservoirs and lakes — it can be so full of pollutants that it kills off vegetation and fish.

As for a wildfire up in the Gallinas Canyon, which Armstrong and everyone else tells us to expect, there’s a bit of good news and a lot of bad news:

The good news is that the city of Las Vegas, which gets 90 percent of its water from the Gallinas River, will be able to keep the contaminated water out of the Bradner and Peterson reservoirs. The Gallinas River doesn’t flow directly into these lakes; they’re fed through a pipeline that begins at the diversion dam a couple of miles upstream. And even though some ash might make it into the reservoirs, officials say the city’s two clarifiers can take it out in the treatment process.

An afternoon tour, from the diversion dam to the treatment facility, reinforced these claims.

The bad news is that most of that post-wildfire contaminated water will head to Storrie Lake and, depending on the amount of water, also flood the lowlands all the way to the Cinder Road area.

Storrie Lake — the biggest reservoir holding city water — could essentially become a dead lake, killed off by the contaminated water. Moreover, if it gets too full, some of that dead water would have to be released to the refuge, and we’d have yet another ecological disaster on our hands.

The tour, which continued from the clarifiers to near Storrie Lake, gave us a better picture of these scenarios.

• • •

As for my presentation about regional water issues, I revisited some of the reporting that we did in a special section last fall:

In the seven-county area of northeastern New Mexico, communities have various concerns about their water. Among the communities we looked at, a couple of them  — Raton in Colfax County and Santa Rosa in Guadalupe County — are doing OK with their water supplies. Clayton (Union County) and Tucumcari (Quay County) are seeing their groundwater supplies depleting. Harding County ranchers are struggling because of water shortages and the rising price of hay, while some Mora County residents are facing health risks due to a lack of wastewater treatment facilities.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas in San Miguel County is sitting on unstable ground because of its dependence on one water source, the Gallinas River, which could be ruined with a single wildfire.

Meanwhile, I pointed out that the region’s population is in a steady decline, owed largely to a lack of economic development which, of course, directly relates to water.

One remedy to offset the region’s decline, I suggested, is desalination, but that’s expensive and may require a regional approach to secure funding. Las Vegas, I said, must be a leader in such an effort, since it’s the biggest hub of economic activity in the region.

But Ken Garcia, Las Vegas’ utility director, made it clear that such an approach isn’t a priority for the city. Instead, the city will look after its own interests, including the feasibility of a desalination operation of its own.

In my opinion, that’s understandable but shortsighted. Las Vegas needs the surrounding region as much as the region needs Las Vegas. If one dries up and blows away, I’d wager that the other will too.

Tom McDonald is editor and publisher of the Las Vegas Optic. He may be reached at 505-425-6796, ext. 237, or tmcdonald@lasvegasoptic.com.