Federal budget proposal would add $1.45 billion for N.M. wildfire recovery

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Dec. 21—Those who suffered losses from the largest wildfire in the state's recorded history could see nearly $1.5 billion in additional federal aid if the funding request New Mexico's congressional delegates added to the federal omnibus spending package passes this week.

The added money would bump recovery funds for the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire to almost $4 billion, and roughly $140 million of it would be earmarked to help Las Vegas, N.M., repair and overhaul its water treatment system, which was choked with ashy sediment and heavy debris in the fire's aftermath.

The $2.5 billion in earlier assistance, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández and Sen. Ben Ray Luján, both Democrats, also came through a stopgap spending measure, although the one in September was much smaller than the $1.7 trillion omnibus meant to fund the federal government through most of 2023 headed to a vote this week.

The aid covers damage caused by the blaze and post-fire flooding.

Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo was elated upon hearing of the pending funds to help cover the hefty costs of fixing the city's drinking water problems.

"That's big news for us," Trujillo said. "We're having to do so many projects because of the fire, to include replacing the filtration system."

The earlier recovery funding can't be used for that purpose, a restriction he found disappointing at the time, he said.

This time around, Sen. Martin Heinrich and Rep. Melanie Stansbury, also Democrats, joined Luján and Leger Fernández in putting the funding request in the disaster supplemental section of the spending bill.

Democratic lawmakers have pushed to have the federal government bear the recovery costs of the mammoth wildfire that devoured hundreds of homes and scorched 340,000 acres.

Two prescribed burns by the U.S. Forest Service, a federal agency, went out of control and merged into the ravenous blaze that raged through San Miguel, Mora and Taos counties.

The incident led to Forest Service Chief Randy Moore ordering a pause in prescribed fires so the agency could revise its burn policies to consider the effects of prolonged drought and more erratic weather, spurred in part by climate change.

As with the current pot of recovery money, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will manage claims. The aid will cover a range of losses including uninsured and underinsured property, infrastructure, personal income and business assets, as well as temporary housing and cleanup costs. There is no cap set on an individual claim.

In an email, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham praised the congressional delegates for what she called their tireless work to deliver funding for the affected region to address "the damage caused by these federally started fires."

"Together we have demonstrated the critical importance of the federal commitment to rebuild and restore the north and to make impacted New Mexicans whole again," the governor wrote.

San Miguel County Commissioner Max Trujillo, the Las Vegas mayor's brother, said he's glad to see funding slated to repair and upgrade Las Vegas' troubled water system, which he described as crucial for the future of the city and county.

"If we can't accommodate our citizens with water, we may as well move out of town," he said.

Max Trujillo said he hopes residents who were displaced by the fire will use the federal money to rebuild their homes in San Miguel County rather than move away. The fire destroyed at least 500 homes in the county, and not replacing them would leave a gaping hole in the tax base, he added.

He also hopes some of the money can go toward rebuilding roads and other infrastructure damaged in the fire and subsequent flooding.

Nairka Trevino, a spokeswoman for Leger Fernández, wrote in an email San Miguel County roads that were damaged might be eligible for funding. However, county officials should first check to see if those can be covered by FEMA's public assistance, she added.

Projects that qualify for FEMA aid might be ineligible for the other federal money, which is limited, she wrote.

In Las Vegas, a supplemental water treatment system crews set up in September is enabling water to be pumped from Storrie Lake to two reservoirs, creating adequate supply for now, Louie Trujillo said.

If the federal funding is approved, the money could pay for three more projects vital to Las Vegas, he said.

One is to install a second treatment system that would operate up in the canyon on the Gallinas River.

Technicians have described the system as pulling water from a line, cleaning it and injecting it back into the pipe to feed the reservoirs.

Another, more extensive, project is replacing the treatment plant's entire filtration system so it can handle contaminants such as the ashy runoff from burned hillsides that rainstorms washed into the river, Trujillo said.

The third is building a system to purify effluent so it can be blended with river water to boost drinking water volume. That process would make the city less dependent on the river and enable the city to avoid scarcity during long, dry spells, he said, adding the city has struggled with drought for many years.

"We will continue to make sure that the federal government makes good on their promises to restore Las Vegas," the mayor said. "That will be my job to make sure we keep the pressure on, and that we hold them accountable."