Serving the High Plains

Regional approach to water is the neighborly thing to do

About 12 years ago, when I was at the Las Vegas Optic, we worked up a special section on the seven-county region of Northeast New Mexico. Not surprisingly, our lead story was about water.

At the time, Las Vegas was facing some serious drought conditions that had slowed the Gallinas River to little more than a trickle, leaving the city — which gets nearly all its water from the Gallinas — with only a couple months of water in reserve. City officials at that time said the reservoirs were only 68% full and sinking.

Also around that time, I got to tour the Gallinas watershed with a group of people who knew or wanted to know more about Las Vegas’ water supply. Prophetically, we were told that the greatest threat to the city’s water system was a wildfire in the Gallinas Canyon, which shadows the majestic, 10,267-foot Hermit’s Peak.

Ten years later, the wildfire we all feared took place, and two years after that, we see its impact on the river that flows through Las Vegas. Last month, a deluge of more than 4 inches of rain fell, sending ash and debris, left over from the Hermit’s Peak Fire of 2022, into the city reservoirs, contaminating the city’s water supply.

Now here I am, about 60 miles southeast in Santa Rosa, watching the crisis unfold from far downstream. It seems that nothing significant came from the alarms our tour guides sounded in 2012 — but you can only play the hand that Mother Nature deals to you, and there’s only so much the parched landscape around Las Vegas can provide.

Meanwhile, here in Santa Rosa, there’s no shortage of water; this “City of Natural Lakes” has an ample groundwater supply in addition to the artesian pools bubbling up. Back in 2012, I interviewed then-Santa Rosa Mayor Jose Campos, who expressed a willingness to help their neighbor to the north if ever needed. 

“All in all,” he said at that time, “we’re all family.”

A dozen years later, Santa Rosa Mayor Nelson Kotiar is making good on those neighborly intentions. Santa Rosa is now supplying Las Vegas some 60,000 gallons of drinking water per day to help the city through its shortage. It’s a temporary fix, but the mayor rightly said it shows this town has “heart,” and I wholeheartedly agree.

It’s no surprise that other cities have also stepped up to assist as well, but this is the one nearest to my heart. Thank God for generous neighbors.

In our 2012 Optic report on the “Pipe Dreams” of Northeast New Mexico, sources all over the region talked about how best to address their water needs.

There was talk about miles and miles of pipeline, from abundant sources like the Colonias wells (Santa Rosa’s big draw) to dried-up towns like Vegas. There was even talk of a desalinization project up in the extreme northeastern corner of the state around Clayton.

Unfortunately, however, money, politics and shortsightedness got in the way and none of it came to fruition. It’s time to revisit a regional approach to water. After all, it’s the neighborly thing to do.

Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. Contact him at:

[email protected]