A town in New Mexico is facing a triple punch of climate impacts from wildfire, drought, and intense rainfall. The city of Las Vegas, New Mexico is set to run out of drinking water in September, thanks to pollution and debris from the largest wildfire in state history.
Some residents at the fringes of Las Vegas, a city some 65 miles (105 kilometers) to the west of Santa Fe, were forced to evacuate in May as the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire raged close by. The city gets its water primarily from a reservoir that feeds off the nearby Gallinas River. The river has now been contaminated by runoff from flooding on the burn scar of the fire, after intense rains in late July fell on the same region burned by the fire just a few months before.
The town’s backup sources for water are two reservoirs in the area, one of which, the Peterson Reservoir, has also been contaminated by runoff from the fire. That leaves the Bradner Reservoir, which has a limited amount of water available for this city of 13,000 people and has already dropped 13 feet (4 meters) due to increased consumption, officials said.
Water restrictions have been imposed on the people living in Las Vegas. Residents are only allowed to use 44 gallons (167 liters) of water per day—the average American uses about 82 gallons (310 liters) daily. The limits on water are seen everywhere in the city: restaurants are only serving water upon request, people are showering using buckets, outdoor swimming pools can’t be refilled, and lawns are not allowed to be watered, the AP reports.
“Everything that we do just takes water,” Charlie Sandoval, who owns Charlie’s Bakery Café in Las Vegas, told the AP. Many of Sandoval’s homemade recipes require large amounts of water—especially chiles, which uses 13 gallons (50 liters) for one batch. “And it just really scares me. What would happen if we run out of water, you know?”
Federal emergency services are trucking in fresh water to the region, while a state emergency declaration has allowed Las Vegas to get funds to pay for a water treatment system that can provide 1.5 millions gallons (5.7 million liters) of water a day from a nearby lake—roughly what the city uses in a day. But it’s only a temporary measure, designed to buy time. A permanent filtration system for the polluted river could cost more than $100 million—a steep amount for this small city—and could take longer to build than the city has.
Burn scars and intense flooding are an example of a compounding impact of climate change. Wildfires can burn off layers of vegetation that would usually catch rainfall, as well as change the chemical composition of the soil, making it more likely that water will run off the surface of the ground and cause landslides and flooding. With both the severity of wildfires and heavy rains increasing as the planet warms, this one-two punch could become all the more common. There’s another sad level of irony at play in Las Vegas: much of New Mexico was in a serious drought until this monsoon season, and officials said the intense rains could have helped replenish reservoirs around Las Vegas, if not for the debris from the fire.
“If the water wasn’t contaminated, we’d be set for life because we’ve had more rain this summer,” Mayor Louie Trujillo told the Santa Fe New Mexican. “Our reservoirs would be completely full. So, it’s unfortunate.”
Representatives of Las Vegas said the city is considering legal action against the federal government. The Forest Service has admitted that two intentional burns that raged out of control in April combined to make the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire, which eventually burned more than 341,000 acres.
“The government is 100% responsible for this disaster and we intend to hold them accountable, to pay for every expense and discomfort that the citizens are suffering right now, even if it includes legal recourse,” Trujillo told ABC earlier this month.