Report: Hazardous New Mexico dams need millions in repairs

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – When heavy rain comes, there are supposed to be systems in place to protect people and their homes. A new report shows crucial pieces of New Mexico’s infrastructure are at risk of failing. That report also shows why state officials say the problem will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fix.

“It’s definitely a strong public safety concern,” explained New Mexico Democratic Senator Pete Campos, of District 8. It’s why he’s sponsoring a bill to fund $100 million for dam repair and renovation in New Mexico.

“We’ve made some repairs throughout the state, but we haven’t made enough,” said Sen. Campos.

“The dams are very, very crucial,” explained Jerry Lovato, Executive Engineer for the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority, or AMAFCA.

They’re often hidden in plain sight, so the general public may not know it, but places like the Ladera Golf course on Albuquerque’s westside are actually designed to protect the public. “This dam is considered a high-hazard dam because it’s located in an urban area, and if it failed, people could be killed or hurt,” Lovato explained.

Ladera Dam is one of 171 high-hazard potential dams in New Mexico regulated by the Office of the State Engineer. A recent report by the State Engineer’s Dam Safety Bureau shows it’s on the list for publicly owned dams with the most pressing need for repairs.

The list includes dams ranging from the more than 100-year-old Peterson Dam near Las Vegas, dams in smaller communities like Raton and Cimarron, to dams in larger communities like Santa Fe County and Albuquerque.

(Peterson Dam is one of the oldest operating dams in New Mexico, built-in 1911.)

“So when the dam fills up with water, there’s always a safety valve, kind of like a pressure cooker that’s gonna allow the water to leave,” explained Lovato.

Like other dams across the state, when Ladera was originally designed back in the early 70s, safety standards were different. They were built to hold less water in a storm event than what’s required now. Plus, new development over the years means engineers need to rethink old designs.

“By its nature when you store water, there’s a hazard associated with that,” said Charles Thompson, Dam Safety Bureau Chief for the Office of the State Engineer.

“We now have dams that were not meant to protect people, that are now asked to do that function,” Thompson explained. “So they’re now high-hazard potential dams.”

Thompson’s data with the Dam Safety Bureau shows 186 dams in the state are in poor or unsatisfactory condition, leading the nation with nearly 60 percent of its high-hazard dams in bad shape. The report states in the event of failure, crucial pieces of New Mexico’s infrastructure pose an “imminent threat to public safety.”

(Cimarroncito Dam in Colfax County needs at least $10 million in repairs)

How likely is the threat? “It is not unheard of,” Lovato told KRQE News 13. He recalled the devastating floodwaters of 1988.

Cars washed up in the northeast heights near Juan Tabo, killing a 16-year-old girl. Five to seven inches of rain in four hours left a path of devastation. More recently, flooding in 2014 caused $1 million worth of damage in Albuquerque.

While New Mexicans see sunny days roughly 76% of the year, Lovato explained why the state faces its own challenges with its dry landscape.

“We have these flash floods, and that’s really kind of what we have to design for,” Lovato said.

Aside from flood control, the state’s dams also provide water for communities, irrigation, and recreation. “Water is life,” Sen. Campos said. It’s why he’s sponsoring Senate Bill 236, asking for $100 million in this legislative session for dam repair and renovation.

“We’ve allocated resources last year as an example, for our highways and local road projects, but our dams are just as important,” said Sen. Campos.

With nearly $800 million in new money this year driven by the oil boom, agencies across the state are asking for budget increases. Campos says while he’s sure many requests are valid, “It’s important that while we have the resources available, that we make these wise investments.”

It’s up to the different agencies and governments that own the dams to maintain their facilities. While some have funding sources, some don’t.

Since the flood of ’88, Lovato said there are more dams in the heights to protect people downstream. “We want it to be safe,” he said.

Campos said he knows $100 million is a big ask, but engineers say it could cost closer to $400 million to improve all of the state’s public dams. According to the National Weather Service, there have been 33 flood-related deaths in New Mexico since 1996, with the majority being flash-flood related.

Significant Flood Events in Albuquerque (National Weather Service)

  • July 9, 1988 – Estimated $2.3 million in damage
  • June 16, 1999 – Estimated $1.2 million in damage
  • July 26, 2013 Estimated $3.61 million in damage statewide
  • August 1, 2014 – Estimated $1 million in damage

Map of high-hazard potential dams in need of repair

(Map created with information from Google Maps and the National Inventory of Dams)

Read 2019 Dam Safety Bureau Report

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