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City with just 20 days of fresh water left finds backup source — but they aren’t out of the woods

<i>Brittany Peterson/AP</i><br/>A water treatment plant employee holds up a contaminated water sample from the Gallinas River in August.
Brittany Peterson/AP
A water treatment plant employee holds up a contaminated water sample from the Gallinas River in August.

By Ella Nilsen, CNN

The city of Las Vegas, New Mexico, will be able to use a nearby lake as a backup water supply, effectively extending its water countdown from 20 days to more than four months.

A river and reservoir that supplied most of the city’s water were tainted by ashy sludge this summer after a massive wildfire burned hundreds of thousands of acres in the watershed. Torrential monsoon rainfall then washed the charred debris into the water system.

Officials completed a series of tests to ensure the water from the nearby lake is safe to drink and can be pumped through its pipes, city utilities director Maria Gilvarry told CNN. The new lake water could give them around 100 more days of water.

In the meantime, Gilvarry said, the city’s water conservation efforts have increased its current supply to about 30 days. The sources combined effectively give Las Vegas a little more than four months of fresh water — time officials will use to implement a new treatment process that can handle the contaminated water.

“This is a temporary fix to keep us with water,” Gilvarry said. “We still need to fix the water quality issues upstream.”

The hillsides around the New Mexico city were scorched by the state’s largest wildfire on record this spring, which burned more than 340,000 acres. Then, an unusually wet monsoon season brought significant summer rainfall — something that would typically be celebrated in the drought-stricken West, but has instead led to disaster-upon-disaster as rainfall washed the debris into the region’s water system.

Not only was there too much sediment in the water for the treatment plant to process, it also posed a significant health risk. When burned organic matter reacts with the high levels of chlorine used to treat water, it can become carcinogenic.

City officials spent the weekend testing and pre-treating water from nearby Storrie Lake. They had to conduct a number of tests to make sure the water was suitable for drinking, and to make sure the water pressure was high enough to carry it to residents’ taps.

The city is also working on getting a newer, updated water treatment center to process the sediment in the river and other reservoir. Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo previously told CNN he was hopeful they could find a long-term solution.

“The silver lining for me is the most permanent solution to this is to replace our water treatment facility and improve some of our infrastructure,” he said. “That’s still a ways away, but it’s within grasp now.”

Still, there will be some amount of sediment in the drinking water for the next decade, simply because the fire burned such a large swath of land surrounding Las Vegas, Gilvarry previously told CNN.

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