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Fighting Fire Without Water: Solving New Mexico’s Water Crisis

State officials and New Mexico’s congressional delegation can do more to prevent future wildfires.

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire that ravaged northern New Mexico this spring and summer is a testimony to the importance of elected officials keeping an eye on the federal government. State and federal elected officials should be the connection and oversight needed to protect communities.

Throughout this past spring, affected communities including Las Vegas, Mora, and Chama, have taken the brunt of the consequences of a horrible fire season that could have been, and ought to have been, prevented. Homes and lands that burned included multigenerational homes and rural features such as the acequia and rural traditions like the equitable governance of water that has belonged to parts of the region for centuries.

Now, a water crisis looms in some New Mexico communities. Las Vegas, with a population of over 13,000 people, has faced a water crisis for months after the U.S. Forest Service’s prescribed burn, which started during fire season, tore loose, and burned for months, causing smoke that polluted the environment, burning down homes and farmland, and paving the way for more destruction when summer rains arrived.

Monsoon season brought mudslides, which brought mud and ash into the Gallinas River and in turn poisoned drinking water for thousands of families in Las Vegas, causing another state of emergency in the region.

In New Mexico, our ecosystem is very delicate. The result of fires tearing through forests and a monsoon season can create devastation that will take decades to rebuild. Starting fires at the wrong time of the year can ruin the lives of thousands. Similarly, the drought that followed the fires was further exacerbated by the fire-fighting efforts that drained southern New Mexico of its water. Supplies were used to extinguish fires in other parts of the state.

State and congressional officials failed to proactively care about forest fires, how they affect their constituents, and how they impact our state only contributes to the problem.

Considering the fires that wracked the state about ten years ago, how effective were our elected officials with their response? How could their work on our behalf be improved to stop the fires? At the time, assurances were made that Congressman Steve Pearce and his staff were prepared to deal with forest fires and the federal bureaucracy. Constituents were informed that staff were actively engaged with the forest service to make sure the federal agency acted in the best interests of New Mexicans.

Prescribed burns should not be happening in the spring. Furthermore, our state and federal elected officials should reassure constituents, that at almost any cost, the U.S. Forest Service knows they will be held accountable if a fire does occur and that saving the lives and ranchland New Mexicans rely on for their livelihood will drive efforts to stop the fires.

The fire referred to as, “the largest fire in state history,” was the man-made product of the U.S. Forest Service, and should not be attributed to climate change or anything else. New Mexico’s governor shares responsibility for the damage done to Las Vegas, and shares that millions of dollars will be spent to rebuild the damage to the community. While multi-generational homes cannot be rebuilt, other projects like cleaning the Gallinas River can be done, but it will take years.

The good news? It’s never too late for state elected officials and our congressional delegation to begin to hold the U.S. Forest Service accountable and prevent another Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire from happening.

By Southwest Public Policy Institute

The Southwest Public Policy Institute is a think tank dedicated to improving the quality of life in the American Southwest by formulating, promoting, and defending sound public policy solutions. Our mission is simple: to deliver better living through better policy.

2 replies on “Fighting Fire Without Water: Solving New Mexico’s Water Crisis”

The Federal government is hampered in its forest management by the EPA (Evironmental Protection Act). The planning that has to be done before a controlled burn or a timber sale takes months, and my understanding is that the date has to be set fairly firmly. If the burn isn’t done when planned, then they lose the money, and probably won’t get it back. Because of inversion layers in the winter that hold the smoke, they aren’t allowed to burn in the winter.

In 1979, when I started with the US Forest Service, we cut timber. The money from the timber allowed the FS to go back and thin the forest. A forest that has been thinned grows larger trees, which are more resistant to fire. So called environmentalists claimed that the spotted owl (which lives from Mexico to Canada) was endangered, and used that to nearly shut down the timber industry. At one time, we had about 26 sawmills in NM. I believe we have one or two now. It makes a lot more sense to cut timber than to let it burn.

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