The city of Santa Fe’s Nichols and McClure reservoirs, nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, have the capacity to hold more than 1.2 billion gallons of water, providing up to 50 percent of the city’s annual supply.

If either dam were to break, officials say, it would have a devastating effect on the city, several miles downstream.

Thankfully, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rated the dams of both reservoirs in the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed as “satisfactory” in its 2018 National Inventory of Dams.

“We are very pleased that the two dams in the upper watershed of the Santa Fe River have been determined to be satisfactory,” said Andy Otto, executive director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association, which oversees the roughly 45-mile Santa Fe River.

“Reduced snowpacks, our largest yet passive water reservoirs, face increased threats due to climate change,” Otto added, “so stability in our water storage capabilities is essential.”

But several dams in the surrounding region — including the Abiquiú Dam, El Vado Dam and the Nambe Falls Dam — received “poor” or “unsatisfactory” ratings in the Army Corps of Engineers’ report.

Alarmingly, more than 200 dams in the state were labeled as poor, and eight received the lowest rating of unsatisfactory.

“It’s a problem,” said Charles Thompson, chief of the Dam Safety Bureau for the Office of the State Engineer, which regulates 298 of the state’s 400 dams. The federal and tribal governments regulate the rest.

The national report does not detail problems with dams, but Thompson said age and changing regulatory standards play a role.

“We have a lot of dams constructed over 50 years ago, so there’s issues with the aging of the physical infrastructure and the use of the dam,” he said. “We have a number of dams that were designed to protect agricultural land but now protect a population, and they were not initially designed to do that — flood-control dams.”

Last week, New Mexico State Engineer John D’Antonio told a legislative committee a wet winter and robust spring runoff have increased risks for many of the state-regulated dams, which could overflow or burst under the weight of the heavy flows, causing flooding that could endanger human lives.

D’Antonio cited the Corps of Engineers’ inventory, which says 30 percent of the state’s 170 “high-hazard” dams — which means at least one person is likely to die if a dam fails — are in poor or unsatisfactory shape. He told members of the Legislative Water and Natural Resources Committee the state does not have emergency funds to repair those dams.

“And if one fails, we can’t protect those residents” living below the dams, D’Antonio told The New Mexican in an interview after the hearing.

Thompson said the state owns and operates only 15 dams. The rest of those regulated by the state are owned and operated by municipalities, counties and private entities — and they are responsible for maintaining and upgrading their dams, he said.

The state estimates it would cost a total of about $250 million to rehabilitate all the dams under its oversight.

During last week’s legislative hearing, Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said he was worried about the lack of funding for dam repairs. He suggested lawmakers consider creating a dam safety fund in next year’s 30-day session, scheduled to begin in mid-January.

But none of his colleagues commented on the idea.

Neither Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, the committee’s chairman, nor Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, returned calls requesting comment this week.

Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, a member of the committee, said in an email Tuesday that “dams should be safe. Right? If the Office of the State Engineer thinks they need more dam safety money they should include it in their budget. …

“It could be an issue with neglected infrastructure (there are plenty of bridges and roads that need repair too),” he said, “but I’m not sure it’s something the Water and Nature Resources Committee will pursue.”

New Mexico has not suffered a serious dam break in many years.

But heavy rains in 2013 did cause a breach in the earthen dam upstream from La Union in Doña Ana County. The Army Corps of Engineers gave that structure, built in 1950, an unsatisfactory rating in its 2018 report.

The Nichols Dam, built in 1943, and the McClure Dam, built in 1926, are earthen dams as well. Though they are considered to be in satisfactory condition, both are labeled as high-hazard dams by the Corps of Engineers because of the toll a breach would take on city residents living below.

Nationwide, there have been few serious dam breaches in the past few years. In Oroville, Calif., however, nearly 200,000 residents were evacuated in 2017 after officials became concerned that a spillway funneling water from the Oroville Dam — the tallest in the country — might overflow. More than $1 billion has been spent to repair the spillway.

The Corps of Engineers began compiling an inventory of dams in the mid-1970s. Its annual reports focus on dams that might meet high-hazard standards or have the potential to cause economic loss, environmental damage or disruption of lifeline facilities, among other criteria.

The American Society of Civil Engineers also rates infrastructure facilities, including dams, around the nation. In its most recent report issued in 2017, New Mexico received a D for the condition of its dams. That report labeled 219 of the state’s dams as high-hazard structures.

Thompson said New Mexico conducts its own regular inspections of state-regulated dams and informs the owners of any structural problems. Owners of dams with maintenance and repair needs are then ordered to take action.

“I don’t have any immediate concerns for any one dam,” Thompson said. “But there’s always that potential for a very extreme event to come along and cause some problems.”

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.