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Tour Highlights Wildfire Concerns in Gallinas Watershed

Andrew Egan talks about the Gallinas Watershed
Photo: Margaret McKinney/Highlands University
New Mexico Forest and Watershed Institute Director Andrew Egan, center, talks during an Aug. 6 Gallinas River watershed tour the institute organized for community leaders. Anna Rael-DeLay, left, field representative for U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, and Bob Lineback, right, forester and wildfire specialist, were among the 21 people who participated in the tour.

Las Vegas, N.M. —  A wildfire in the Gallinas canyon could have catastrophic effects on Las Vegas’ water supply, forest, fire and water officials told community leaders during an Aug. 6 tour of the canyon.

“It’s not if, but when, we get a large wildfire in the Gallinas canyon and we anticipate it could be catastrophic,” said Steve Romero, U.S. Forest Service district ranger for the Pecos/Las Vegas District.   “The question is, ‘How prepared are we for a big fire and its aftermath?’ The Gallinas is a very high priority for the forest service because it supplies water to Las Vegas. A major wildfire here would mean all hands on deck for suppression.”

The Gallinas River is the primary water source for the City of Las Vegas. The New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute organized the tour.

During the tour, Romero pointed out federal forest thinning projects on Santa Fe National Forest land as well as previous wildfire sites, including the 2010 Tecolote Fire that burned approximately 800 acres in the Gallinas.

“After a large-scale fire in the Gallinas, flooding during the monsoon season is a critical concern for the water supply and quality,” said Andrew Egan, director of the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute at Highlands University. “Massive soil erosion could overwhelm the water filtration system.

“One of the reasons for this tour is to connect the dots from the watershed to your faucets, as well as to better understand the issues and challenges ahead. Preplanning, communication and education are vital,” Egan said.                                                  

In addition to Egan and Romero, other experts were on hand to give talks to the tour group:

Carmen Austin, district forester,New Mexico State Forestry Las Vegas District, said state forestry is working in cooperation with private landowners in the Gallinas on an incentive cost-sharing program to create defensible space around homes as well as strategic tree thinning. She said the Tierra y Montes Soil & Water Conservation District administers the federal funding for the landowner projects. For more information, call Tierra y Montes at 505-425-9088.

Dennis English, manager, San Miguel County/City of Las Vegas Office of Emergency Management, said  his office received federal funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to complete a comprehensive countywide hazards mitigation plan, including wildfire. The plan is nearly completed. He added that an important objective of the Gallinas Partnership is educational outreach to the approximately 300 residences in the Gallinas watershed. The county has a geographic information systems (GIS) mapping system in place to identify structures for evacuation purposes. In addition, county emergency messages and preparedness information is available on Facebook (www.facebook.com/smclvoem), Twitter (www.twitter.com/smclv_oem), the Nixle alert system (www.nixle.com/), and both the city and county websites.

Russell Pacheco, San Miguel County fire chief, said 112 of the 342 volunteer firefighters in the county’s 12 fire districts are trained and certified as wildland firefighters through an aggressive ongoing effort. The Gallinas and La Placita districts would be first responders for a Gallinas wildfire, with most fires requiring a multiagency response. Pacheco said that due to high wildfire danger, San Miguel is under countywide fire restrictions for any open flames. For more information, contact your local San Miguel fire district.

Don Cole, City of Las Vegas water systems manager, said during a stop at the dam for Peterson Reservoir, the city’s main water storage site, that numerous leaks in the 99-year-old dam were evident. Cole said the leaks result in a water loss of 80-90 gallons per minute, an amount that could supply approximately 821 Las Vegas households a day. He said that in the event of a catastrophic Gallinas wildfire, the city currently has the capacity to supply 60 days of water to its users. Cole said this might not allow enough time for the river to return to normal conditions. The city is exploring ways to fund water infrastructure improvements, including repairing and raising the level of the Peterson Reservoir dam to increase capacity to three-quarters of a year of water storage. Due to the severe, ongoing drought, the city is under restrictions for all outdoor watering.

Charles Starkovich, Mayor of Raton, talked about the 2011 Track Fire that burned nearly 28,000 acres dangerously close to the town. He said because Raton has an alternate water supply, the town flipped the switch to give residents water during the fire. Starkovich also stressed the importance of having adequate sediment basins to filter the water following a major wildfire. The Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute and Starkovich led a second tour Aug. 7 of the Track Fire’s aftermath and Raton’s water system.

“This Gallinas watershed tour has been a very eye-opening opportunity for me to see what the issues are for wildfire and water capacity,” said Keith Tucker, president for Community 1st Bank Las Vegas. “These issues are too big for any one person or agency to solve. That’s why it needs a collaborative approach like we’re seeing today.”

English said: “I think we’re making significant forward progress and people are understanding the seriousness of the Gallinas watershed issues. Andy Egan has done an excellent job of bringing people to the table to work on the issues together.”

Egan, who earned a Ph.D. in forest science from Penn State University and is a Senior Fulbright Scholar, joined the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute in August 2010. He took a lead role in forming the Gallinas Partnership in 2011.

The partnership includes the City of Las Vegas, San Miguel County, state and federal forest service, private landowners, and other stakeholders. It works to improve the health and safety of the Gallinas watershed through wildfire mitigation that helps prevent catastrophic wildfire and improves watershed health.

“The partnership evolved from a grassroots effort and is going strong,” Egan said. “There are four working groups: economic development, education/outreach, on-the-ground practices, and preparation/emergency response.”

The New Mexico Forest and Watershed Institute works to develop safer and healthier forests and protect watersheds.