NMWDOC Declares Need for More Awareness and Funding
The New Mexico Watershed and Dam Owners Coalition (NMWDOC) convened their annual conference for two days in early May at Hotel Encanto, overlooking the river valley. They met just south of the Las Cruces Dam to discuss safety, management, and emergency plans affecting structures like this across the state. Thousands of Las Cruces residents drive by this location every day, seldom giving a thought to the dam structure or the hundreds of others protecting lands and people around the county. Hatch residents still measure time by the 2006 flood and sleep with one eye open during the monsoon season. Las Crucens are still repairing damage from last year’s monsoon.
The conference focused on much more than discussing potential problems with public awareness and alertness about dams. Engineers, scientists, water managers, regulators and legislators met to share ideas and discuss maintenance plans and methods as well as working together to fund and accomplish these plans. Attendees also discussed improving watershed health, slowing stormwater and retaining sediment before it makes its way in an overwhelming rush into the river channel and canal systems or through downtown Main Street.
The website “Map My Run” has this to say about the Las Cruces Dam: “2.5 miles one-way. Trail is flat and packed gravel. 1/2 mile marks are sometimes scraped into the dirt starting from Lohman end (behind Albertsons).” Unfortunately, often the only thought given to a dam is as a place to walk the dog, run, or play. Outside the city, flood control dams are viewed as a great place to take ATVs. Riders are just out for some fun, they don’t consider how the wearing down of those tracks up and down the dam is eroding away the soil with every pass, creating a path of least resistance for the next round of rainfall.
“What probability of failure is considered acceptable?” is a question raised by Dr. Phil King, EBID’s engineering consultant and civil engineering professor at NMSU in a presentation delivered by Dr. Lommler, NMSU professor and Principal Geotechnical Engineer with the Wood company. This is an excellent question. As a point of reference he notes that bridges were designed at two levels, critical structures having a 1:10,000 chance of failure, regular structures having a 1:1000 chance of failure. He asks an important rhetorical question, “How do dams or levees compare if they are designed for a 1:100 year flood events?”
Elephant Butte Irrigation District is responsible for maintaining 25 dams along both the east and west mesas from the Hatch Valley to El Paso, Texas. Most folks aren’t even aware of these dams and if they are they don’t give them a second thought. The dams are well over their planned 50 year lifespan and most were designed to protect farmland, not the subdivisions and communities that now often surround them or sit below them. Many people don’t remember the days of city and county wide damaging floods. They have never spoken with long time residents who recall the destructive water that would fill homes in communities up and down the entire length of the Rincon and Mesilla Valleys, leaving devastation and huge cleanup bills. Tom Vigil, of the Colfax County Office of Emergency Management said it perfectly in his conference presentation, “99% of the time we don’t have enough water, 1% of the time we have too much.”
EBID works with many groups like the OSE Dam Safety Bureau, the Dona Ana County Flood Commission and the Soil and Water Conservation Districts to annually inspect the dams it sponsors or co-sponsors. The Natural Resources Conservation Services, formerly the Soil Conservation Service, designed and constructed many of the dams in the area and still aid in coordinating annual dam safety and O&M inspections. The NRCS designed constructed 22 of 25 dams EBID maintains. Although the EBID’s focus is surface water management, it actively participates and even spearheads weather and stormwater tracking and flood water management into its system as well as dam maintenance and repair! The District provides the labor force behind most of the dam maintenance in South-central New Mexico, performing this via MOUs that allow the groups to collaborate and enable funding of equipment and labor costs to implement the work.
EBID is usually the first responder to all flood events because of the impacts to their irrigation infrastructure that carries stormwater to the river. The District also then works closely with the other groups during these events.
NMWDOC not only meets annually to share ideas and progress, the members work year round toward proactive management, coordinating maintenance and triaging rehab for at risk dams. Dam Safety Bureau Chief Charles Thompson reported that there are many dam rehabilitation projects in place across New Mexico. In addition, there is an active push to develop more Emergency Action Plans, with 17 more in progress around the state. Conference speakers were united in their goal to protect people and property. They repeatedly expressed grave concern over the lack of public awareness about dam safety and the importance of funding the aging infrastructure that is desperately needed.
Roger Ebner, Director of Emergency Management for the City of Albuquerque spoke from extended experience about developing Emergency Action Plans that will work for emergency managers in their specific and unique situations. He stressed the critical importance of regularly exercising these plans. His work implements a strategy of community partnerships, networking communications and getting the entire community involved. He said, “The big issue is communicating the right things to the right people at the right time.”
Communities across the region have had repeated experience working together in disaster recovery. A brief search about flooding turned up numerous, frighteningly regular articles detailing events from Hatch, down to Las Cruces and La Union. There are historic photos of the 1935 flood that inundated Las Cruces, the 2006 Hatch flood, YouTube videos of flash floods in September 2014 and last July’s massive storms. It is frighteningly obvious just how devastating a massive volume of water can be, but we forget. We fail to respect the power of moving water. The concerned and committed members of the NMWDOC get it. They work countless hours to help their communities think well and wisely about stormwater management and protection.
Are you concerned yet? You should be; it’s time to speak out! Talk to your legislators, work with the many government and civic organizations to help raise awareness and be part of a plan for protecting lives, homes and property. We are fortunate that we don’t get direct hits from hurricanes, large earthquakes or other events of this magnitude, but we do have regular, intense, severe storms and lack of preparedness can astronomically increase the damages. We are responsible for speaking up, for alerting our politicians and local officials, and asking for the maintenance funding rather than focusing every dollar on economic development. It is much wiser to proactively protect ourselves instead of finding ourselves in the terrible position of scrambling for money and assistance after a disaster.
Tye Parzybok, President of MetStat, Inc., in his report on the Colorado New Mexico Regional Extreme Precipitation Study showed the US Drought Monitor Map for May 8, 2018. He noted, “New Mexico is in the middle of one of the worst droughts in the country right now.” However, models are showing an expected early onset of the monsoon season he said. We certainly need the moisture and the hope. However, it’s a mixed bag of benefits. Just last July, a massive storm hit our area and once again provided a great amount of work for those charged with the clean up and repair of damage to property, homes and vehicles. Thompson emphasized that more awareness and resources are needed to make improvements that will bring our aging infrastructure into compliance. Are we working to understand the risks and prepare? Ebner stated that we must overcome denial, “It can happen and it can happen to you!” He challenges us that we can do more. We must do more.