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Even as fire rages, a race to protect waterways from debris and floods

Burned Gallinas Canyon
Alice Fordham
In the steep slopes above the Gallinas River are swaths of trees and soil burned by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire, at risk of washing into the river and contaminating the only municipal water supply for Las Vegas

Firefighting aircraft are still buzzing over Las Vegas as the largest fire recorded in New Mexico rages to the north. But peering down a dramatic, rugged canyon, the city’s Utilities Director Maria Gilvarry is already contemplating the aftermath

“So this area that we're looking down on is directly over the Gallinas River,” she says. The river is the city’s only municipal water source, supplying about 13,000 residents and many visitors.

“It's sad,” says Gilvarry, “because this this whole mountainside just a little over a month ago looked like that section down there; tall, green pine trees.”

No longer. For a stretch of — she guesses — two miles along the side of the canyon stand the blackened skeletons of trees and moon dust soil, ash rising up in puffs as the breeze blows and drifting into the canyon like an ominous sign of what may come next.

“All of those, possibly hundreds of thousands of former bushy pine trees, at some point are going to come down,” says Gilvarry.

Maria Gilvarry, Utilities Director for the city of Las Vegas, looks down into the Gallinas River
Alice Fordham
Maria Gilvarry, Utilities Director for the city of Las Vegas, looks down into the Gallinas River, which is at risk of contamination from burned trees and soil

With about 3,000 firefighters working, containment of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire reached 50% this weekend. But with severely burned areas along crucial water sources, the next challenge could be flooding and contaminated rivers when the summer rains known as the monsoon come.

Without intervention, in a few weeks rains will likely sweep trees and soil into the Gallinas River, which would contaminate the water and clog a system that diverts the river’s water into reservoirs and a treatment plant.

So now Gilvarry is working with engineers, “to create debris barricades. Something to hold back these trees and to hold back the debris and to give us time,” to secure the infrastructure.

This is an interagency effort and she has lots of meetings including with FEMA, army engineers and forestry officials. This kind of work can cost tens of millions and as yet it is not clear exactly who is going to pay for what.

“It depends on who's the entity that's responsible for that area,” said Gilvarry. Some of the burned land is part of the Santa Fe National Forest, some is privately owned or municipal. “They're going to have to help find out who's going to help pay for it.”

Two residents of Chacón converse while the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire burns in the background
Alice Fordham
Two residents of Chacón converse while the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire burns in the background

Debate about who foots the bill may drag on. The fires that got out of control here were started as planned burns by the U.S. Forest Service. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has called for the federal government to pay for the damage, which is likely to be considerable.

“It's a concerning situation. It's very serious,” said Micah Kiesow, who is working with the Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response team, which studied how badly the forest and soil were burned around the Gallinas River and Tecolote Creek near Las Vegas

“We found some serious post-fire conditions out there,” he said. Of 115,000 acres surveyed, he said about half was moderately or severely burned. That means the forests no longer soak up rain, and instead water will run off burned soil without trees and undergrowth, and could cause flooding.

“You can think of a sponge, pre-fire and a parking lot, post-fire,” said Kiesow. “And that parking lot will shed a lot of water and take a lot of that topsoil with it as it comes downhill.”

As more parts of the U.S. become hotter and drier, fire is likely to become more of a problem for water managers nationwide, said Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He studies the effect of fire on water sources.

“I think we have to admit the frequency is going up,” he said. “The fires are getting more intense. That fire season, you keep hearing that it used to be so many months over the summer. Now we're getting to be year-round here in Colorado."

And, he added, the forested land where fires burn is also where people get their water. According to government data, about 80% of the U.S.'s freshwater resource originates on forested land.

Increasingly, government agencies and utility companies are now planning for fire.

“I've worked directly with utilities in the East Coast, even in upstate [New York],” he said. “Where maybe you didn't think too much about fires. But it's not hard to fathom a future where fires can impact on New England as well.”

Jerry Martínez, the water operator of the water association of Chacón
Alice Fordham
Jerry Martínez, the water operator of the water association of Chacón

In New Mexico, the time pressure before the monsoon means officials are having to prioritize. Forest and Watershed Health Office Co-ordinator Collin Haffey spoke recently at a conference on rural affairs at the State Capitol in Santa Fe.

“What's the return on investment in terms of saving lives, saving property, reducing the risk of damage and preparing the best we can for the floods that are coming?” he said. “There's limited stuff that we can actually do. Mother Nature bats last. Unfortunately she'll bat last again when the monsoons come this year, next year and the following year.”

And so far, in the northernmost areas burned by Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak, the Forest Service’s emergency response team hasn’t assessed the situation. But locals know how serious things could get.

In the town of Chacón, in Mora County, Jerry Martínez is the water operator for a local water association. He estimates that a spring channeled into a water tank provides water to about 115 homes.

Now, the flow from the spring has drastically reduced. Martínez theorizes that the fire burned so hot, the rock cracked and changed its course. In addition, the charred trees and burned topsoil are likely to wash down into a tributary of the Mora River which people use to feed animals and water crops.

“It's going to be a mess,” said Martínez, who is a great-grandfather and traces his family back several generations in Chacón. He paused only briefly as he hiked into the steep forest he has known his whole life, and looked around the blackened trees. “When the rain gets here, if we get the monsoons that we normally get, all of this will be down in that canyon in there.”

“It's pitiful,” he said. “I don't know what the answer is.”

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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