Coming up this week: Gubernatorial candidates answer questions on water, energy, climate

This week, NM Political Report is publishing interviews with New Mexico’s four gubernatorial candidates about water, energy, climate change and other environment issues. Throughout election season, candidates typically talk a lot about jobs, education, the economy and what their opponents might be saying or doing. Those are undoubtedly important issues. But so are conflicts over water, the fact that the southwestern United States is warming at nearly double the global rate, and chronically low morale at some of the state’s most important agencies. We didn’t tailor the questions we asked to elicit campaign promises or to paint candidates into an ideological corner.

Get ready for the Rio Grande’s bad year

As high winds whipped dust, Siberian elm seeds and recycling bins around Albuquerque Thursday afternoon, dozens of people filed into the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque office to hear the agency’s 2018 forecast for water operations on the Rio Grande. “I’ll be the bearer of bad news,” said Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Manager Jennifer Faler. “This is the most extreme shift we’ve had from one operating plan meeting to another.”

Last year at this time, snowmelt was pouring down the river, flooding riparian restoration projects, filling out farm fields and even pressing against levees. This year, the lack of snowpack throughout the watershed’s mountain ranges has left the Rio Grande low and slow—and dry for 14 miles south of Socorro. Currently, the river is dry through the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Groups fight nuclear waste storage proposal in NM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Groups opposed to construction of a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s commercial reactors are on a tour this week to make sure people know what’s being proposed for southern New Mexico. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering a proposal from Holtec International to build and transport the waste, now stored in casks at various nuclear power plants around the country, to southern New Mexico. Don Hancock, director of the Southwest Research and Information Center’s nuclear-waste program, said New Mexico shouldn’t be the repository for 60 years’ worth of nuclear waste generated on the East Coast. “The proposal is to bring all that currently exists,” he said, “so, if this were to happen, the place where all this waste would be is in New Mexico, as opposed to now, when it’s in more than 30 other states and none in New Mexico.” The Holtec facility could store up to 100,000 tons of nuclear reactor waste for as long as 120 years, or until a permanent repository is built. The NRC’s 60-day public comment period on the site licensing application is open until May 29.

Federal court, Zinke call for consultation with tribes on Chaco. But what will that mean?

At the end of March, a federal court said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has not adequately considered protection of cultural sites near Chaco Culture National Historical Park when granting permits for oil and gas drilling. The full order is still forthcoming, but the six-page memo by Judge James Browning echoed comments by U.S. Department of the Interior Ryan Zinke earlier this spring. When Zinke postponed the sale of oil and gas leases on 4,434 acres of BLM land in San Juan, Sandoval and Rio Arriba counties, he told the Albuquerque Journal, “We’re going to defer those leases until we do some cultural consultation.”

Under federal law, agencies must consult with tribes that have cultural ties to an area being developed, whether the plan is to drill oil and gas wells, inundate a reservoir, build a pipeline or create a national monument. Yet, what often constitutes consultation is already considered inadequate by tribes and activists—and some wonder how the Interior Department will address the problem in northwestern New Mexico while simultaneously prioritizing energy development. President Donald Trump signed an executive order early in his administration directing Zinke to review the agency’s rules, including one guiding hydraulic fracturing on federal and Indian lands.

It’s only April and a stretch of the Rio Grande has already dried

In springtime, rivers are supposed to swell with snowmelt, filling their channels and triggering fish to spawn. This year, however, the Middle Rio Grande has already dried south of Socorro. Record-low snowpack in the mountains upstream means that the state’s largest river is in trouble this year. And so are the species and communities that depend on it. Earlier this week, biologists headed to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to start scooping up endangered fish from pools and puddles and relocating them to a stretch of the river that is still flowing.

Heinrich, Udall: EPA head Pruitt should resign

U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall said Thursday that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt should resign. The two Democrats are the latest elected official to say the scandal-ridden administrator should not be in charge of the agency. “Scott Pruitt has been surrounded by ethical problems and has failed to take the core mission of the Environmental Protection Agency seriously,” Heinrich said in a statement. “He has been plagued by conflicts of interest and built a long track record that is antithetical to the EPA’s responsibility to keep our nation’s land, air, and water clean. And perhaps most damning of all, Mr. Pruitt has a willful disregard for data-driven science when it comes to tackling climate change.”

It isn’t Pruitt’s stance on climate change, however, that has led to even some Republicans to call for him to resign.

Change up: SCOTUS changes special master on Rio Grande water battle

There will be a new special master in the legal battle between Texas and New Mexico over the waters of the Rio Grande. The U.S. Supreme Court discharged Special Master Gregory Grimsal, a New Orleans-based attorney, in an order this week, replacing him on the case with Judge Michael Melloy of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In 2013, Texas sued the upstream states of New Mexico and Colorado, alleging that by allowing farmers in southern New Mexico to pump from groundwater wells near the Rio Grande, the state has failed to send its legal share of water downstream. In a unanimous opinion last month, the U.S. Supreme Court also allowed the United States to intervene in the case and pursue its claims that New Mexico has harmed its ability to deliver water under the Rio Grande Compact and under its international treaty with Mexico. Were New Mexico to lose against Texas and the federal government, the state could be forced to curtail groundwater pumping and pay damages of a billion dollars or more.

Facing down a century-old problem on the Canadian River

HARDING COUNTY, N.M.—Descending the narrow dirt road into Mills Canyon, U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Michael Atkinson jokes that in the nineteenth century some homesteaders headed to California surely reached the rim of the Canadian River, peered down its 1,000-foot-deep canyon and decided to settle here in New Mexico. He points to a small stone building on the floodplain below and explains that in the 1880s, Melvin Mills planted thousands of fruit trees. For more than two decades, horses hauled up tons of peaches, pears, apples and cherries, as well as walnuts, chestnuts and almonds. But in 1904, a flood wiped out Mills Canyon Enterprise and now all that’s left are the stone remains of the storehouse and Mills’s home and this wagon road Atkinson twists down. That’s not the only story this floodplain tells.

NM Environment Review: More LANL news, plus the Gila River diversion and EPA’s Scott Pruitt

We usually send out the New Mexico Environment Review on Thursday mornings. If you prefer reading the news in your email, sign up to receive that message. The Santa Fe New Mexican’s Rebecca Moss keeps up her great coverage of Los Alamos National Laboratory, this week with a story about how the lab took a week to find hazardous waste it had lost. The Silver City Daily Press’s Benjamin Fisher reported that the state had some questions for the New Mexico  Central Arizona Project Entity:
Before approving a nearly $200,000 higher cost ceiling for yet more engineering, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission questioned if the group charged with developing a diversion of water from the Gila and San Francisco rivers could meet upcoming federal deadlines for them to do so at a meeting in Albuquerque on Tuesday. The Durango Herald reported that Colorado farmers may receive 50 percent of their normal allocations of irrigation water.

Environmental groups sue over EPA’s move to weaken Clean Air Act

ALBUQUERQUE — Clean-air advocates want the federal courts to stop a new rule that would allow major polluters to turn their pollution controls off. Since 1990, the Clean Air Act has required major sources of pollution to reduce their emissions by the maximum amount possible. However, according to Tomas Carbonell, director of regulatory policy and lead attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, a new rule issued in January, with no opportunity for public comment, allows those major polluters to reclassify themselves as smaller sources. “In doing so,” he said, “they avoid complying with the most protective emission standards that EPA has issued to reduce emissions of pollutants like mercury, benzene, arsenic and other dangerous compounds.” The Environmental Protection Agency has claimed the rule is required by its new interpretation of the Clean Air Act.