A sense of urgency could be felt in the flurry of activity around a pumping station as the loud, repetitive beep of heavy equipment punctuated the hurried pace.
Amid the hubbub, supervisors quietly cheered the arrival of a large, four-way pipe connector — a simple but vital piece in the treatment system the crew was installing to boost this mountain community’s drinking water supply that otherwise will run out in a few weeks.
Ashy sediment and other debris have washed into the Gallinas River, the area’s main water source, from the colossal burn scar left by the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history.
The disaster has placed Las Vegas directly between a rock and a dry place, a location the city has been in before — but never to this level.
City officials say this is new territory because there are no simple fixes for the city’s water problems in the aftermath of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire — and perhaps, no end in sight.
Unable to tap the contaminated river, Las Vegas has drawn drinking water from nearby Bradner Reservoir’s limited supply as it imposes severe restrictions on users. The area’s other main reservoir, Peterson, was heavily contaminated.
As a stopgap, the city is leasing a temporary treatment system for $2.3 million a year to filter dirty water flowing into a pumping station from nearby Storrie Lake.
That will provide about 1.5 million gallons a day — enough to meet the essential needs of the 13,000 residents. However, it will provide only enough to get by for a few months while managers work on a longer-term solution, Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo said.
Officials wouldn’t say how much this treatment system might ease water restrictions.
Each resident is limited to using 44 gallons of municipal water a day, roughly half what the average American consumes. Restaurants serve bottled water or tap water only on request.
Trujillo said Las Vegas residents are used to conserving water — the city has faced water restrictions in the past — but these latest restrictions are unusually severe, and he said he hated imposing them on people.
He bemoaned the harsh irony of the city’s water predicament.
If not for the charred hillsides, the monsoon — the most profuse in recent memory — would shore up the city’s water supply instead of lacing the Gallinas River with sediment the treatment plant can’t handle.
“If the water wasn’t contaminated, we’d be set for life because we’ve had more rain this summer,” Trujillo said. “Our reservoirs would be completely full. So, it’s unfortunate.”
The beginnings of good news
One ray of light in the city’s bleak struggles since an inferno set the hills ablaze in the spring is officials expect the interim treatment system to be operating by midweek and funneling decontaminated water to the municipal plant.
Basin Water Resources, based in El Paso, is the primary contractor supplying most of the equipment and overseeing assembly.
Clarence Wittwer, Basin Water’s project manager, said crews had made good progress in the week they’d worked at the site, and he hoped to start running water through the system by Saturday, or early this week at the latest.
“It’s coming together,” Wittwer said.
The process to treat the water is complex.
A portable pump will divert dirty water from the main line into a closed-loop treatment process.
Coagulating chemicals will be injected into the water that cause the contaminants to clump and drop to the bottom of a tank. The congealed sludge will be piped to another container and then put through a dryer, which has a row of plates pressed together and dangling from a rack.
High heat and pressure turn the soupy sludge into cake-like slabs between the plates. The slabs are placed into a huge bin to be hauled off to the landfill.
Meanwhile, the purged water will circulate into the pump house, where it will be channeled to the treatment plant for final filtering, said Maria Gilvarry, the city’s utilities director.
The plant’s filters use coal, sand and gravel to screen out physical impurities, so they aren’t designed to handle massive, floating sediment, Gilvarry said.
“If you have a bunch of sediment in there, it’s going to clog it up,” Gilvarry said.
Long-term water treatment less certain after stopgap
The next step is to install a second pre-treatment system, one that would operate up in the canyon on the Gallinas River, Gilvarry said. This system would be set up below the diversion that draws water from the river and pipes it to the two reservoirs, she said.
The system would pull water from a line, clean it and inject it back into the pipe to feed the reservoirs. That would boost the volume of drinkable water and create a steady supply of the city could completely control, Gilvarry said.
She said there’s no firm date on installing the second system.
Gilvarry didn’t respond to emailed questions Friday about whether the Storrie Lake treatment system providing a three-month stopgap would be enough time to get the second system put in place — and what will happen if no additional supplement is created in 90 days.
She expressed general optimism the two systems will augment water supply as long as needed until the city can rebuild or replace its treatment plant to handle fire-related contamination. It’s an undertaking that could cost as much as $100 million.
“That [expense] is hard to estimate now due to the tremendous increase in the cost of components, labor and the amount of planning and design work that will need to be done,” Gilvarry wrote.
The city’s portion of water in Storrie Lake is 800 acre-feet, compared with a combined 5,000 acre-feet in the Bradner and Peterson reservoirs, Gilvarry estimated during an interview at Las Vegas’ City Hall.
An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to supply two or three average households for a year.
Though Las Vegas largely escaped the fire after a few close calls, the aftermath of the blaze was evident throughout the area. Orange booms were stretched across sections of the river to catch the largest debris drifts.
About 27 feet of water has been drained from Peterson Reservoir because it was so contaminated, and Bradner Reservoir has dropped 13 feet mostly because of increased water consumption, said Travis Martinez, projects coordinator for city utilities.
Martinez stood on a high embankment overlooking the depleted Bradner Reservoir, an orange boom bisecting the water.
“This place used to be beautiful,” Martinez said.
Trujillo said he’s looking for the federal government to cover the costs of fixing and upgrading the city’s water system, given that it’s responsible for the problems the wildfire caused. Two prescribed burns intended to reduce wildfire risks went amiss because of flawed planning that didn’t consider the more hazardous, dry conditions from an extended drought and climate change, according to a US Forest Service review.
The two runaway blazes merged into the enormous Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, destroying hundreds of homes and scorching an area that stretches more than 530 square miles, including areas near Las Vegas.
“We are expecting the federal government to pay for whatever we need,” Trujillo said. “We intend to hold them responsible for the costs associated with the damage.”