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New Mexico governor declares state of emergency as one city’s drinking water supply is threatened by ash and debris from wildfire

By Paradise Afshar and Steve Almasy, CNN

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday declared a state of emergency for the northeastern New Mexico city of Las Vegas due to flooding of a wildfire burn scar that is threatening the area’s drinking water supply.

The scar from a fire that burned more than 340,000 acres has resulted in thousands of acres of ash and debris along the Gallinas River watershed, a release from the governor’s office says.

Las Vegas, which has a population of about 13,200 people, has a two-month supply of water, but flooding threatens to contaminate the supply with fire debris and ash. The river supplies 90% of the water for Las Vegas.

The governor’s executive orders allow for $2.25 million in state emergency funding to be made available “to assist the local government with emergency measures, help prevent additional damage, repair public infrastructure, and lessen the overall recovery time related to wildfire impacts and burn scar flooding,” according to the release.

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire is 94% contained as of Thursday, the federal wildfire clearinghouse InciWeb says, but no new fire behavior has been reported recently.

In May, when firefighters first got the huge blaze under control, Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo told CNN even though the West needed rain, officials there were racing the weather to divert precious river water into a downstream lake before downpours came with the monsoon season.

“There are large portions of the watershed you can see that are completely burned. It looks like burnt toothpicks sticking out of the ground for acres and acres,” Trujillo told CNN. “With the soil instability, during a heavy rain event it would be like putting water on a bunch of baby powder where it doesn’t absorb at all; it just falls.”

Megafires destabilize the soil. When it rains, thousands of tons of charred sediment flow into rivers and reservoirs used for drinking water. Even if water agencies can filter out the taste of dirt and ash, water treatment managers also worry about the lingering impacts of charred organic compounds mixing with the chlorine used to purify the water to make it drinkable.

The cause of the Hermits Peak Fire — a prescribed burn where winds pushed flames over boundaries then the blaze combined with the Calf Canyon Fire — has greatly upset the governor.

“The destruction that continues to befall New Mexico communities affected by the US Forest Service planned burns from earlier this year is unfathomable,” the governor said in the release. “I am very appreciative of the diligent and proactive work done by the City of Las Vegas to ensure that the municipal water system will continue to operate safely, and I am glad to provide emergency funding from the state to support that effort. New Mexicans in San Miguel County have been through enough — we will continue to do everything we can to support them and prevent additional damage as a result of the wildfires.”

According to the governor’s release, Trujillo said, “The contaminated water flow from the Gallinas caused by the wildfire damage to our watershed has compromised the availability of water to the Las Vegas municipal water system. Rest assured that the city will be holding the federal government responsible for our current situation.”

The weather forecast for Las Vegas calls for more rain this weekend, according to the National Weather Service’s website.

Saturday’s forecast is: “Showers and thunderstorms likely, mainly after noon. Some of the storms could produce heavy rain. Partly sunny, with a high near 79. Chance of precipitation is 70%.”

Las Vegas is about an hour’s drive east of Santa Fe and was a town on the historic Santa Fe Trail, according to the National Park Service.

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CNN’s Ella Nilsen contributed to this report.

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