Augustin Plains Ranch order released, meetings scheduled on controversial water project

A few weeks ago, we reported on a proposal by Augustin Plains Ranch, LLC to build a pipeline and pump 54,000 acre-feet of water each year from the aquifer to the Albuquerque area. The 37 wells would all be in Catron County near the town of Datil. Now in its third iteration, the application is pending before the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, which administers the state’s water resources. In July, the state agency canceled a pre-hearing meeting. But last week, it released the application’s scheduling order, which includes information about the project and the process, as well as upcoming public meetings.

NM not as dry, but drought still persists

New Mexico still isn’t out of the woods when it comes to its long-running drought. That’s what Phil King, a civil engineering professor at New Mexico State University and water advisor to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, said. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor release shows that 98.66 percent of New Mexico has no abnormally dry or drought conditions. This is the highest percentage since the monitor began tracking drought conditions in 2000—breaking the record of 95 percent from last week. King says that the monitor only takes “a shallow look at drought,” tracking soil moisture and recent precipitation.

Interior’s new sage grouse recommendations at a glance

The Interior Department has finished a sweeping review of 98 West-wide sage grouse management plans, part of a broader effort to examine what President Donald Trump deems potential barriers to energy extraction on federal public lands. The review, which took place across the 10 Western states with existing sage grouse plans, ended with a contentious report filed to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week. A panel of federal officials authored the report, which was released to the public on Monday. The report suggests scaling back protections for the imperiled bird, in an effort to give states (and likely industry) more flexibility. Some governors and industry groups say the recommendations open the door to more development.

Legal scholars dispute whether monuments are permanent

No president has ever abolished a national monument, and it has been more than 50 years since a president shrank one. Nor has Congress revoked any significant monuments. The high regard given these special places is part of what makes President Donald Trump’s order to review all large monuments designated since 1996 so extraordinary. Courts have never decided whether a president has the legal authority to change or undo a designated monument, and now this uncertainty has sparked a clash of legal titans. A multitude of legal experts — including 121 law professors — argue that presidents lack the power to alter or revoke monuments.

Deadline looms for NM comments on oil and gas methane rule rollbacks

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico residents have until Wednesday to submit comments on stricter standards for methane leaks from new and modified oil and gas operations. The tougher rules were approved under the Obama administration, but they’re among those the Trump administration has promised to roll back. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has argued that the oil and gas industry didn’t have enough input on the new standards aimed at preventing air pollution. New Mexico rancher Don Schreiber said he opposes any rollback. He attended dozens of public meetings and said hundreds of thousands of comments were already submitted supporting the changes.

Pruitt says he’ll re-evaluate Gold King Mine claims EPA had rejected

The Denver Post reported Friday that Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt says he will re-evaluate the damage claims the agency had previously rejected from the Gold King Mine spill in August 2015. The New Mexico Office of the Attorney General, which was among those that had sought damages, has not heard from the agency, however. “We have confirmed that the EPA is not asking for resubmittals from those entities who have sued,” spokesman James Hallinan wrote in an email. “Thus, we did not receive the letter.” While conducting exploratory cleanup work of an abandoned mine in southwestern Colorado, federal contractors caused 3 million gallons of wastewater to spill from the Gold King Mine into the Animas River.

Rural residents continue decade-long battle against San Augustin Ranch water project

Driving on Highway 60 across the Plains of San Agustin, it’s easy to dwell on the past. The floor of the valley cradled a lake during the Pleistocene, and windmills and stock tanks fleck the green expanse that stretches for some 50 miles, west of Magdalena and toward the Gila National Forest. But it’s not the past Catron County Commissioner Anita Hand is worried about. It’s the future. A decade ago, her brother and father spotted a legal notice in the newspaper announcing that the ranch next door planned to drill 37 wells into the aquifer that provides water for the area.

The Interior secretary gave a closed-door speech to ALEC

On July 20, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spoke at a closed-door meeting of conservative state legislators and lobbyists, raising questions about his stated goals of transparency in federal government. Zinke, a former Montana congressman, spoke in Denver at the annual meeting for the American Legislative Exchange Council, an industry organization backed by Koch Industries and ExxonMobil and devoted to “limited government, free markets and federalism.”

ALEC, whose initiatives include a push for state control over federal lands, provides model bills for state legislatures and influences bills going through Congress. Because of the group’s funding sources and its interest in states holding public lands, conservationists see Zinke’s association with the group as problematic. Throughout his congressional confirmation process for the Department of Interior position, and in the early months of his job, Zinke has reiterated that he does not favor land transfers. “The things that Zinke has claimed he stood for, in terms of public lands, ALEC are the ones driving against that all these years,” says Aaron Weiss, media director at the Center for Western Priorities.

What does Utah have to do with NM’s national monuments?

During U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recent visit to New Mexico, most of his attention focused on Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. The secretary spent two days in southern New Mexico, viewing the monument by helicopter and on foot and meeting with people and groups in closed settings. That monument, designated in 2014 by President Barack Obama, lies within Rep. Steve Pearce’s congressional district, and the Republican has long opposed the monument’s size. It’s possible, if not likely, that Zinke will recommend changes to the monument, despite widespread support from southern New Mexico’s elected leaders, businesses and residents. For now, many think the boundaries of Rio Grande del Norte National Monument may be safe.

Zinke ‘horses around’ on trip, New Mexicans wait for decisions

In New Mexico last week, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke met with elected leaders, local sportsmen, ranchers and veterans. The former Montana congressman squeezed in a horseback ride and even showed off some wrestling moves to New Mexico’s senators. Currently, Zinke is considering the fate of about 20 places currently protected as national monuments, including Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks near Las Cruces and Rio Grande del Norte near Taos. New Mexico’s senators and sportsmen took advantage of his visit to the state, bringing him to the Sabinoso Wilderness in San Miguel County. Even though Congress designated the wilderness in 2009, hikers, hunters and horseback riders have been locked out of the 16,000-acre area’s canyons and mesas.