SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The state is offering emergency loans of $688,000 to local governments coping with damage from a wildfire in southern New Mexico and to strengthen an earthen dam at risk of failing if rains produce expected flooding in fire-scarred areas of Lincoln County.
The state Board of Finance approved money Thursday for the county and the village of Ruidoso, which are scrambling to prepare for flash floods in the wake of the Little Bear fire that burned 44,000 acres and destroyed about 250 homes and other structures.
About $216,000 is to beef up the dam at Alto Lake by installing large rocks along parts of it to prevent the dam from being eroded by flood waters that flow into the reservoir.
“My big fear is that when we get a flood event of any size … that we will lose Alto Dam,” Randall Camp, Ruidoso’s utilities director, told the board.
There are homes downstream from the dam, which is in the county near the small community of Alto. The 52-foot-high dam was built in 1965, according to the state Engineer’s Office.
Camp said the concern is that a flash flood could overwhelm a diversion channel and the dam’s spillway, allowing water to flow over the top of the dam and erode it.
Rain will cause flooding because the fire denuded the area’s steep mountainous terrain, allowing water to race down into streams and rivers.
County and Ruidoso officials warned that the area faces possible flooding for several years, not just this summer from seasonal monsoon rains.
People are greatly at risk from flash floods because water volumes quickly spike, giving area residents little notice of the danger. Camp said water flows in a flood after the fire could run up to 4,000 cubic feet per second in one of the area’s main watersheds, which previously would average about 124 cubic feet per second previously.
The board provided $254,000 for the county to prepare for flooding. Much of the fire damage and the loss of homes occurred in the county and officials said there were 2,500 homes in the path of potential flooding. Debris and trees are being removed that could clog floodwaters and damage bridges. The county expects to spend almost $1.4 million by late August on flood mitigation.
“We’re very, very concerned about the safety and welfare, and especially the lives of people who live in these areas,” said Lincoln County Manager Nita Taylor.
The board also provided $218,000 for Ruidoso for a radio communications system that can be used to keep in touch with emergency personnel and local officials. Cell phone service in poor in canyons and the area’s steep terrain, and landline phone service failed during the fire, the board was told.
The Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management had requested $452,000 for a flood warning network, machines for filling sandbags and equipment for rescuing people caught in flood waters. However, Gov. Susana Martinez said those costs could be covered through a state disaster declaration that makes $750,000 available for wildfire assistance.
The board, which is led by the governor, has the power to make emergency loans and grants as well as approving certain contracts and state bonds.