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Editor's Note - Touring two watersheds

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By Tom McDonald

For a couple of days last week, I was a watershed tourist.            

But not just me, of course. On Monday, about 20 Las Vegas movers and shakers took a ride into the Gallinas Canyon, stopping at various points along the way to learn from experts about the condition of the river, the woodlands and how Las Vegas collects, stores and uses the watershed’s most valuable resource.

The Gallinas tour was the backdrop needed to fully appreciate the next day’s trip, when several of us went to Raton and learned about how that city responded to a wildfire in its watershed last year.

Both tours were organized by Andrew Egan, director of the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute at Highlands University.

Egan’s big on collaboration and it showed in the wide range of people he had participating in these tours.

The insights I gained from the tours won’t fit in into a single column, so expect me to reference these trips in future writings. For now, let me start with some of the glaring differences between the Las Vegas and Raton water supplies.

One obvious difference is that, even after last summer’s Track fire — which burned nearly 30,000 acres, much of it inside the city-owned watershed — Raton’s water system is in better shape than Las Vegas’.

Raton has a strong secondary source in Eagle Nest Lake, 46 miles of pipeline away. (In fact, Raton has enough water that it’s officials expressed a willingness to sell some of it to Las Vegas, if we can only figure out a way to get it here.)

By contrast, Las Vegas has a weak secondary source (Taylor Wells) and is currently facing a water deficit — we’re consuming 1.6 million gallons of water per day while pulling about 1 million gallons a day from the Gallinas River.

Raton appears to be a lesson in how to respond to a catastrophic wildfire in the watershed. To protect the city’s main water source in the watershed, Lake Maloya, Raton used a smaller lake, Dorothey, which lies up-canyon to the north, as well as berms and a catchment pond to the west, to collect most of the debris and sediment before it drained into Maloya.

Of course, before all that, the city simply switched to its Eagle Nest water source, so there was no interruption in service to the city’s 8,000 or so water customers.

Las Vegas isn’t prepared to do anything like that. With a major wildfire in the Gallinas Watershed, we have nowhere to divert the debris and sediment that will come downstream. So our water supply will likely become contaminated and we won’t be able to switch to an adequate alternative water source, and we’ll only have about 60 days of water in storage. In other words, with a major wildfire in the Gallinas Canyon, we’ll quickly run out of potable water and our town will dry up.

So how likely is such a catastrophic wildlife to happen? I’ll quote Steve Romero, U.S. Forest Service ranger for he Pecos/Las Vegas district, at one of our stops in the Gallinas Watershed:

“It’s not if, but when.”

Later, I’ll go into what needs to be done.

• • •

I’m writing this before Saturday’s pig kissing to raise money for the Samaritan House, and I have no idea who “won” with the most votes, or dollar bills donated, to kiss that pig. So what I’m about to say applies no matter what the outcome:

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the cause: my supporters and my opponents, all the candidates and especially the contributors. It was all in good fun, and I hope everyone enjoyed it.

And congratulations to the winners. Yes, winners, because not only did someone win the dubious honor of kissing the pig, but the Samaritan House won with several thousands dollars raised.

If “laughter is the best medicine,” maybe some of us found a cure for taking ourselves just a little too seriously at times. I know I did.

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