As the attention of legislators and residents has focused on plans by a private company to store high-level commercial nuclear waste in southeastern New Mexico, changes could be afoot in how transuranic waste from nuclear weapons is managed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP. On June 1, the state of New Mexico is scheduled to decide whether to approve a permit modification request from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Nuclear Waste Partnership, the private company that operates WIPP. The modification to the permit would create new definitions—describing two different methods for reporting waste disposal volumes—within the permit. If accepted by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), it would remove all references to the original language—based on the federal Land Withdrawal Act—limiting the facility’s total disposal capacity to 6.2 million cubic feet. And it would allow the federal government to track waste differently than in the past.
It’s been a busy week, and we have plenty of news to share from around the state and region. -New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has filed the state’s counterclaims in Texas v. New Mexico & Colorado, the U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit over the waters of the Rio Grande. We’ve posted those pleadings on our site, if you want to read them for yourself. Want to get this in your inbox a day earlier? Sign up for the email list.
Last year, we wrote about campers abandoning fires over Memorial Day weekend, a time when New Mexico’s forests experience a big bump in visitor activity. Reporting that story was pretty startling. All told, campers just in the Jemez Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest abandoned 19 campfires over that three-day weekend. Tagging along with fire protection officers for just one day, we saw unsafe campfires (some because they weren’t contained within a fire ring, others because they were way too big for their rings), people firing guns close to other campers and drivers of both trucks and ATVs in places they shouldn’t be. People left campfires burning while hiking; others left smoldering fires and trash behind after packing up altogether.
New Mexico filed its responses to Texas and the federal government on a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit over the waters of the Rio Grande. On Tuesday night, New Mexico Attorney General and its contract attorneys filed the state’s counterclaims on Texas v. New Mexico & Colorado. We’ve posted those three pleadings below. A press release announcing the counterclaims included a quote from Balderas: Our legal strategy will hold Texas and the federal government accountable for the significant amount of precious water being misappropriated that rightfully belongs to New Mexico’s working families and small businesses, and for the federal government not using proper accounting and failing to ensure reasonable water delivery improvements. Using the best science, technology and evidence-based strategy, we will protect our traditionally underserved and culturally diverse population, and protect against those interests that threaten our citizens and businesses.
Despite the rains that doused parts of New Mexico on Monday, the state officially entered into drought conditions on the Rio Grande when water levels in two key reservoirs dipped below a critical legal threshold. On Sunday, New Mexico entered into Article VII restrictions as storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs dropped below 400,000 acre-feet. Under Article VII of the Rio Grande Compact, that means Colorado and New Mexico can’t store water in any upstream reservoirs built after 1929. In the Rio Grande watershed, reservoirs capture and store native Rio Grande water and water piped from northwestern New Mexico via the San Juan-Chama Project. Each drop is earmarked for particular users and managed under the legal strictures of the compact.
New Mexico’s next governor should be ready to confront the state’s critical water issues on his or her first day in office. That’s according to Mike Connor, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior during the Obama administration, who spoke at a water conference at the University of New Mexico on Thursday. The agenda looked ahead—past the six remaining months of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration—to what the next governor needs to understand about New Mexico’s water challenges, from drought and water transfers to interstream agreements, including on the Colorado River, whose waters seven U.S. states and Mexico share. Connor noted that on the Rio Grande, Elephant Butte Reservoir is 18 percent full, and said it could drop to less than five percent by the end of this year’s irrigation season. “The governor needs to have some policy initiatives ready to go as quickly as possible because there are going to be water issues that need to be addressed from the get-go,” he said.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall joined fellow Democrats to question U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt about his ethical and spending decisions. As reported by the Washington Post, Udall grilled Pruitt: Udall, describing Pruitt’s management of the agency as “disastrous,” again called on Pruitt to resign. The former Oklahoma attorney general, he said, has treated his “position of public trust as a golden ticket for extravagant travel and fine dining.” Irrigators in northwestern New Mexico are worried about the drought, prompting New Mexico State University to offer a workshop on water conservation, according to the Farmington Daily Times. Noel Smith also reports that the filing period has started for Navajo Nation elections. The Carlsbad Current-Argus has an update from the city’s mayor on efforts to remediate the area’s brine well.
The signs of rising temperatures are obvious across New Mexico right now, from the mountains to the river valleys, and from rangelands to suburban backyards. “Climate change for the Southwest is all about water,” said Jonathan Overpeck, who has spent decades studying climate change and its impacts in the southwestern United States. Warming affects the amount of water flowing in streams, and the amount of water available to nourish forests, agricultural fields and orchards. There’s also the physics of the matter: A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, demanding more from land surfaces. Plants need more water, too.
Elizabeth Miller writes in the Santa Fe Reporter about getting out to gaze at the dark skies. Benjamin Fisher tracks a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn in the Gila National Forest. He also continues his dogged coverage of the Gila River diversion in the Silver City Daily Press. Adrian Hedden with the Carlsbad Current Argus has a story about restoration efforts on the Black River. In other news around the region, El Paso Electric lost $7 million in its first quarter of 2018 and a natural gas company is expanding facilities in Eddy and Lea counties.
A training exercise on Kirtland Air Force based ignited the early March fire in the East Mountains that spread across 200 acres. An investigation by the 277th Air Base Wing Safety showed the Piñon Juniper Fire was started by a ground burst simulator. Like smoke grenades, ground burst simulators are used to prepare military personnel for scenarios and sounds they might encounter in combat. James Fisher with Kirtland Public Affairs said an interdisciplinary team has since developed and implemented new guidelines for training with smoke canisters, diversionary devices and ground burst simulators during times of high fire risk. “Training procedures have been amended to ensure that risk associated with fire hazard conditions requires substitutions with non-hazardous equipment or omission of certain training activities,” according to Fisher.