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How New Mexico is learning to live with the megadrought47:13
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In this April 26, 2021, file photo, released by USDA Forest Service,  wildfire burns in the Lincoln National Forest in N.M. (USDA Forest Service via AP, File)
In this April 26, 2021, file photo, released by USDA Forest Service, wildfire burns in the Lincoln National Forest in N.M. (USDA Forest Service via AP, File)

The American West hasn't seen a drought like the one its experiencing now in more than 1,200 years. In New Mexico, it’s fueled early, recording-breaking wildfires.

“When I first became State Engineer in 2003, we used to around 4 million acre feet of water a year,"  John D’Antonio, New Mexico's former top water official, says.

"That was in the probably 2003 to 2012 time frame. I had a hiatus from the state engineer’s office. I came back in 2019. Over that time, we were actually diverting about a million acre feet less.”

Now, more than 90% of New Mexico is in extreme or exceptional drought.

“The severe drought is here to stay. Future projections, they show the water resources will decrease," John D’Antonio says. "How do we keep things from getting worse?”

Today, On Point: How New Mexico is learning to live with the megadrought.

Guests

Mayor Louie Trujillo, mayor of Las Vegas, New Mexico, community of about 13,000 people located nearby the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires.

John D’Antonio, served as New Mexico’s top water official from 2003 to 2011 and again from 2019 to 2021 as the State Engineer. Co-owner and principal program director of American West Water Advisors.

Transcript: An Interview With Las Vegas, New Mexico Mayor Louie Trujillo

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The American West continues to endure the worst drought in more than 1,200 years. Let me say that again. It is the worst drought in the West in more than 1,200 years. In New Mexico, more than 90% of the land there is currently in extreme or exceptional drought. And every year across the West, the drought reveals new ways that it's permanently changing the landscape and how people live on it.

This year, there's a painful irony that's led to New Mexico's record breaking wildfires. They were started intentionally. Prescribed burns, whose purpose is to clear forests of dry fuel that could ignite into uncontrolled wildfires. But those prescribed burns themselves got out of control. The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires combined to consume more than 335,000 acres, and they remain only 70% contained.

The federal government has accepted responsibility for the wildfires and has committed to covering 100% of the cost of debris removal and emergency protective measures. But the threat posed by the fires reach beyond charred acreage. New Mexico's governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, says the wildfires are endangering critical water sources.

MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM [Tape]: We need help with debris removal, watershed protection for our river streams … [and] the water, which is the lifeblood of all these communities in particular.

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CHAKRABARTI: And one of those communities is Las Vegas, New Mexico, population about 13,000. And Louie Trujillo is that city's mayor and he joins us now. Mayor Trujillo, welcome to On Point.

LOUIE TRUJILLO: Thank you so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So, first of all, Mr. Mayor, can you tell me sort of what the current conditions are like in and around Las Vegas, New Mexico?

TRUJILLO: So definitely dealing with the megadrought. Things around are brown. Las Vegas used to be a very green community. Everybody had lawns and the rolling hills to the east of us were always so green and beautiful. And now there's just a complete shade of brown everywhere. So it's dry and hot today. And unseasonably windy for this time of year. And that is what really caused those fires to go out of control. And the winds were so fierce during that during that time, you know, 50 mile an hour sustained winds and 80 mile an hour gusts while the fire was burning the hottest.

Still today, waking up, there is a smell of smoke, visible smoke, you know, in the horizon. And you could smell smoke, not as much as when the fire was close to Las Vegas and almost creeped into our city. We were one ridge away from catastrophe for our city. On the west side of Las Vegas … the fire burned right along that ridge. And fortunately for Las Vegas, it didn't creep into our town.

CHAKRABARTI: But it got awfully close. And can you tell me what stopped the fire from actually getting into town?

TRUJILLO: Yeah, we were very blessed that the Forest Service had lots of human resources on that fire, including aircraft, when it wasn’t windy. So the times that it wasn't windy, they were busy putting their retardant on that ridge and then fighting the fire right behind that ridge. So they knew that if it came over that ridge, it would be a whole different story for this town.

And so they dumped a lot of resources on that fire around the perimeter of Las Vegas, on the west slopes of the Sangre de Cristos. So we were fortunate in that way. But now comes the other stress. So the fire is not in our area anymore, per say. It's still in our county near the Pecos Wilderness. And now the different stress today that we're living with is the watershed issue and the burn scars along the watershed.

CHAKRABARTI: So Mayor Trujillo, I'm definitely going to come to that in a second here. But I want to emphasize that, you know, I appreciate you counting your blessings about the fire not coming into Las Vegas, New Mexico. But just to underscore the point that you and other New Mexicans have made, there are many towns and villages that haven't been so lucky in the state because of these massive historic fires. I mean, you grew up there. And have you ever seen anything like this? Wildfire this large, this early in the season?

TRUJILLO: Never. You know, the fire season usually begins in June. Ours started in April. And unseasonably warm, unseasonably windy, as you can see. But, you know, I've never experienced this accumulative memory from my past, you know, when I was a child, the river used to flow bank to bank every spring. And we were warned not to get it to the river. And, you know, we had snow every week. The Halloween week was always our first snow storm and we had snow every week.

I remember that because I used to walk to school and three feet, four feet of snow every single week. Now, if we get two of those storms a year, we're lucky. And the river does not flow like that anymore. The river … you can jump over it now, as opposed to when we were kids. That river used to flow from bank to bank. And, you know, every spring we were afraid of the runoff. So right now, the river is very, very barely trickling. … I don't recall the severity of a drought like this.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, you are describing a completely different climate from when you grew up, which is just it's a really visceral way of understanding how much the drought is changing the landscape in the West and in New Mexico. Now to talk about the next concern that communities like Las Vegas, New Mexico have. Again, I mean, it's this terrible irony. First of all, there's drought, which has reduced the amount of critical water already. And second of all, these fires are threatening those water supplies for another reason. Can you tell me why?

TRUJILLO: Well, you know, up and up and down the burns, the watershed, there are several burn scars, severe burn scars. And so, you know, the experts are telling us that we have to prepare our town for flooding because so much of the water should burn and there's nothing to hold that water. The soil is covered in ash so it doesn't absorb the water and sort of slides off, like if you would put water on baby powder, for example, the water just washes down.

So any along the banks of the Gallinas River that is going to happen. And trees that have burned are going to fall and they are going to come into the river. And a large rain event, experts say even if it rains heavily for 15 minutes, we're in great danger of a flood in town. So there's lots of stress, lots of preparation.

Plus, Gallinas River is our only lifeline for water. So we have to move fast in installing debris catchment systems and filters and, you know, settling ponds and whatever we have to do. Work around the clock to try and beat Mother Nature to a rainstorm. To make sure that that water does not enter into our reservoirs and then consequently into our treatment system. So Corps of Engineers right now started work on Saturday to install catchment systems and alarm systems up and down that watershed.

CHAKRABARTI: Mayor Trujillo, you're describing a world right now where fire season is earlier and more intense than ever. Then there's the concern about protecting already reduced water sources in the aftermath of fire season. Then there's just the daily changes that have happened in places like Las Vegas, New Mexico, no outdoor watering, no washing cars, no swimming pools, except for with a couple of exceptions. I mean, is this just the new way of life in Las Vegas, New Mexico?

TRUJILLO: It is. It's been a way of life for several years now. Unfortunately, our citizens have lived under a constant stage of Water Conservancy. So we have had one stage or another of water conservation. You know, the citizens do such a great job at conserving water here. And so the city also has a very, very strict conservancy plan in place so that we reserve as much water as we can, so the citizens do a great job of protecting, you know, our natural resources.

So unfortunately, that is the new reality. You know, we have to you know, what every street used to have? Every house used to have a lawn. And now there's you know, there's zero escape everywhere, which is probably smarter now in the West. So yeah, it's just a new reality. It's something that we have to get used to along with trying to procure, you know, additional water sources for the city.

This program aired on June 16, 2022.

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Meghna Chakrabarti Twitter Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.

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