Several Northern New Mexico communities are facing a water crisis in the wake of the Calf Canyon–Hermits Peak Fire, and one community near the Taos County-Mora County line was completely without running water on Sunday (June 5). It’s the second time the pipes have gone dry in the unincorporated community of Chacon since evacuated residents were allowed to return to their homes in late May.
When the largest wildfire in the state’s history swept through the mountains outside Chacon in Mora County, it generated enough heat to crack the rock formation of a spring that once flowed into a collection box at a rate of 20 gallons per minute, ultimately supplying water to over 350 residents via 133 household connections.
“The spring got diverted, now it’s coming out about 10-15 feet further down the rock cliff,” said Jerry Martinez, water operator for the Agua Pura Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association (MDWCA), which supplies domestic water to about 90 percent of all residents in the Chacon area. “We can still tap into it, depending on what the landowner says.”
For now, the bulk of the spring water is flowing past the collection box, and from there it has fed into a downhill storage tank since the 1970s, when the water association was formed. And there’s another problem: The delivery pipe from the collection box to the storage tank was also damaged during the fire. The 7.5 gallons per minute the spring is still producing is further diminished by the time it reaches the storage tank.
“We’re only getting 5 gallons a minute into the storage tank because we have a line break somewhere in the burned area between the tank and the spring,” said Martinez, who spoke to the Taos News at a table inside Rene’s 50s Diner in Mora on Friday (June 3). “We applied through FEMA to get the spring source fixed, and we need a new line. We do have an engineer getting a design done for the repairs; then we need funding to pay for it.
“We got water samples last week, the water is good, but we had to shut it off for two days a week ago and let it build up — so everybody was without water for two days,” Martinez said. He had spent weeks trying to get help implementing the temporary fix from the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and federal agencies assigned to the fire, but he was unsuccessful.
“I blew my top,” he said. “I told em, ‘Are you actually telling me you guys are the problem solvers, but you don’t have a pump in the whole state of New Mexico?'”
“We need a minimum of 5,000 gallons a day” added to the storage tank in order to supply the community’s needs,” he said. “They found a 3,000 gallon water truck in Mora but the guy with the truck said it couldn’t pump the water 20 feet up from the truck into the storage tank.”
Meanwhile, Martinez estimated that Chacon would likely have enough water for 24 hours once he allows the storage tank to fill up on the trickle of water still available. After that, “It’s probably going to be 24 hours on, 24 hours off. We won’t know how long exactly until we do it,” he said.
Doug Dahl with Pacific Northwest Incident Management Team 2, which is currently assigned to the North Zone of the wildfire, has been trying to locate a water truck outfitted with a suitable pump for nearly two weeks. Martinez got a call Friday evening: Dahl said a truck that fit the bill had been located in Salt Lake City and was en route.
“It was supposed to be here at 8 p.m. this evening, but the truck broke down on its way here,” Martinez told the Taos News on Saturday (June 4), adding that his next move would be to ask elected state officials to request a water pump from the National Guard.
Fire Information Officer Michael Johnson confirmed to the Taos News that the Salt Lake City truck — which he said was the only such truck available within Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah — was indeed a no-go, and indicated that “national dispatch” in Boise, Idaho, would “broaden its scope” to search for an available truck outside of the Southwest region of the country.
“One issue is it needs to be a pump that can be used for potable water, and it needs to be strong enough,” Johnson said. “A short-term solution to assist with the delivery of potable water to the district has been hampered by the lack of resources available within the southwest. A potable water tanker with a pump capable of supplying the required pressure to get water to the tank was ordered from Utah, but had mechanical issues on the way to the incident. We are working to find a suitable replacement from other regions of the country.”
Last Friday the New Mexico Environment Department lifted water advisories for eight water systems in Mora County and one system in San Miguel County, but Agua Pura wasn’t one of them.
The environment department issued the initial “precautionary drinking water advisories” on May 12 as a result of power outages or direct effects to drinking water operations caused by the Calf Canyon–Hermits Peak Fire. After evacuation orders were lifted, the state, in coordination with the New Mexico Rural Water Association (NMRWA) and water system representatives began to conduct on-site evaluations of a total of 16 water systems serving about 4,150 people.
In Holman, Cleveland, Mora, Ledoux and Guadalupita, residents whose water is supplied by community water associations can safely drink, cook, shower and bathe with the water from their faucets, according to a June 3 New Mexico Environment Department press release.
Around 2,000 people, whose water is supplied by the Pendaries MDWCA, Pendaries RV Resort, Camp Blue Haven, El Porvenir Christian Camp, Buena Vista MDWCA, Agua Negra MDWCA and the Agua Pura MDWCA in Chacon are still under a precautionary water advisory as of Friday, according to the environment department.
“Customers of these public water systems should continue using alternate sources of drinking water to ensure the protection of public health,” the environment department release said. “Residents who need assistance receiving free, safe drinking water may contact the Fire Resource Hotline at 1-800-432-2080.”
Martinez said that state and federal officials delivered a 40-foot trailer full of bottled water to Chacon, so residents have sufficient water to drink but not to regularly wash themselves, their clothes, dishes and the like. He added that Agua Pura isn’t the only MDWCA within the perimeter of the fire dealing with water shortages.
“There’s one here in Buena Vista up the [NM] 518 before you get to Vegas and they’re having problems,” Martinez said. “I’m not sure if it’s because of the fire, but I know they don’t have any water.”
In its press release last week, the environment department said it “continues coordinating closely with water system officials and the NMRWA to assess systems as quickly as possible for potential infrastructure damage that could affect water quality and safety.”