Mayor Louie Trujillo knows he has at least a five-year push in front of him to rebuild water treatment facilities in Las Vegas, N.M., that were contaminated by debris from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. And while he’d like things to move at a faster pace, he did get a drop in the bucket on Monday to help.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency deposited $2.6 million with the city to help cover the cost of engineering reports necessary to move forward with building a new facility in the northern New Mexico community that was forced to restrict water use after the wildfire because of the damage.
“I’m very impatient when it comes to this because I want it done like tomorrow,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s my understanding that the pre-engineering reports take six months to a year, and then that design starts.”
While Trujillo and the rest of residents impacted by the fire wait for billions in relief from the federal government, New Mexico lawmakers also advanced a measure that will provide $100 million to help with infrastructure repair much sooner.
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The state Senate unanimously passed the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Recovery Funds measure on Wednesday. It still has to survive House-side before it arrives at the governor’s desk for signature.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in her State of the State that this legislation a priority, and if she signs the bill, $100 million would immediately be set aside from the state’s General Fund to become zero-interest loans for local communities like Las Vegas until April 2024.
Only local government entities approved for federal public assistance recovery funding are eligible for the state dollars.
Counties can use the state loans on infrastructure repair work. Then, once they get their federal funding, they have a month to pay their loans back to the state.
Lawmakers are pushing this bill quickly through the Legislature because federal funding has been slow to arrive in northern New Mexico.
“We definitely have urgent need within the area that was adversely affected by the fires,” Sen. Pete Campos (D-Las Vegas) told the Senate.
However, it’s not clear yet how quickly the state would get the loans out to the local counties because there is no language in the legislation about how quickly the state will distribute money.
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Sen. Michael Padilla (D-Albuquerque) said during discussion of the measure Wednesday that he supports the bill and believes it will lay the groundwork for how to deal with other disasters in the future. Many other senators added that other wildfires, like the Black Fire in southern New Mexico, still need to be addressed, as well.
“This is a move in the right direction,” Padilla said.
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Campos said the state’s bill could help meet immediate needs, like replacing water filtration systems, specifically mentioning Las Vegas.
After the fire, flooding ash and debris filled up the Gallinas River, the city’s main water supply, officials have been trying to repair or work around destroyed water infrastructure.
Other federal money is coming through to help Las Vegas’ water issues. As part of the congressional spending package that President Joe Biden approved in late December, $140 million is headed to the city for use on water projects specifically.
Trujillo said that Monday’s deposit was the first toward new water treatment facility. To his understanding, he said the engineering reports that will be paid for by this money will make the city eligible to receive more federal dollars. He said he will have a meeting with FEMA representatives later this week to discuss next steps. .
“I’m delighted that things are finally starting to move in a positive direction,” he said.
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While this project will take years to get off the ground, Trujillo said previous emergency funding from New Mexico came in swiftly so he’s excited for the money New Mexico is planning to spend on recovery.
He said the state stepped in to cover the costs for a temporary filtration system at Storrie Lake and set up a similar reimbursement agreement.
“So that money is going to be readily available to us in the event that we need it,” Trujillo said. “What we needed, we needed then. We couldn’t wait. And if we would have gone through the federal government for something like that, we’d probably still be crossing our fingers.”
Before state senators sent the bill to their colleagues on the House side, Campos echoed Trujillo’s point that people most affected by the fire need help now.
“There are so many of these aspects of just trying to get people to some level, if you will, of normalcy. Our lives are not going to go back to what they used to be,” Campos said. “We’re willing to go ahead and work through this, but the patience is running out.”
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