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A town is running out of drinking water after wildfire contaminates supply


A city in the southwest is running out of drinking water, and it's not for lack of rainfall. Las Vegas, N.M., is watching water rush by and fill reservoirs. But because the water is running off of a giant wildfire burn scar, it's unfit to drink. From member station KUNM, Alice Fordham reports.


ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The Gallinas River is flowing fast and strong through the middle of Las Vegas, so it's maybe confusing that firefighter Todd Regensberg is knocking on people's doors with bad news.

TODD REGENSBERG: So I don't know if you've heard, but we're in a water shortage.

FORDHAM: He hands a piece of paper to the proprietor of a thrift store.

REGENSBERG: These are just some tips and ways to conserve.

FORDHAM: It recommends using paper plates to save on dishwashing and limiting flushing toilets.

REGENSBERG: We're trying to get everybody to just do their part...


REGENSBERG: ...And conserve in any way you can.

FORDHAM: Las Vegas' watershed was burned over in the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, the largest ever recorded in New Mexico. Firefighters managed to save the town of 13,000, but Mayor Louie Trujillo says the blackened mountainsides surrounding them are a huge problem.

LOUIE TRUJILLO: Everything from pine needles to logs and boulders and trees coming down from the burn scars into the river - so the river has been rendered unusable because our current filtration system cannot handle the heaviness.

FORDHAM: Two of the town's three reservoirs are contaminated by ash. That leaves one. It's got about six weeks' worth of water in - less every day. It's painful because part of what made the fire so severe was drought in this region. Rain should be a relief.

TRUJILLO: So the irony is it's been pouring every day. And, you know, the water in the river is flowing bank to bank, and we're not able to use any of that water at this point.

FORDHAM: The state of New Mexico has declared an emergency here and has fronted more than $2 million to hire a company to provide what's called pretreatment services for the water for about a year. The plan is that the water would be taken from one of the contaminated reservoirs, Storrie Lake, and filtered enough that it could go into the regular municipal water treatment system. But it'll take a while. And meantime, the drought restrictions are arduous.

ELIZABETH SANDOVAL: If we have to go to, like, plasticware and the plastic plates and water bottles, we're probably going to have to charge for that.

FORDHAM: Elizabeth Sandoval manages a famous local restaurant, the Spic and Span. She worries out-of-state visitors aren't going to get it.

SANDOVAL: So if they don't know what's going on, and they see, like, an extra, like, $5 or whatever on their ticket, they're going to be like, what's this? And they come to the restaurant, and they have plasticware and paper plates. It's going to be a challenge, too.

FORDHAM: But like most people here, she says she'll do whatever she can to save the water they still have. At the fire station, Fabian Duran apologizes for the trucks. They're not allowed to wash them.

FABIAN DURAN: They're really dirty (laughter). We try to leave them out in the rain (laughter).

FORDHAM: Firefighters have switched focus from attacking flames to preparing for rescues from the swollen river. Training today, they're strapping on life vests and throwing ropes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All right. Throw them back.



FORDHAM: And several nights a week, fire chief Steven Spann goes out on flood watch, keeping an eye on surges.

STEVEN SPANN: You don't see it coming at first. You just hear kind of this rumble. And then here comes the surge, and it's just taller, deeper, and then you start seeing the foam and the bubbles from it, tree debris coming down. You see the water getting a little bit darker from all of the ash and soot.

FORDHAM: He says a prayer every time that this river, which is usually the lifeblood of the city, doesn't hurt anyone as the contaminated swell hurtles under the bridge. For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Las Vegas, N.M.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.