NM Environment Review: Holtec hearings, news from the Roundhouse + more

All week, we look for stories that help New Mexicans better understand what’s happening with water, climate, energy, landscapes and communities around the region. Thursday morning, that news goes out via email. To subscribe to that weekly email, click here. Here’s a snippet of what subscribers read this week:

• Susan Montoya Bryan with the Associated Press has a story about U.S. Regulatory Commission hearings on the proposed Holtec site in southeastern New Mexico, where nuclear waste from commercial power plants would be “temporarily” stored until the United States builds a permanent repository. The Albuquerque Journal’s Maddy Hadden is following the story, as well as Adrian Hedden with the Carlsbad Current-Argus and Marisa Demarco atKUNM.

For Haaland, climate change is ‘worth losing sleep over’

Elected in November to represent New Mexico’s First Congressional District, Rep. Deb Haaland is among the first of two Native women to join the U.S. Congress. Focusing on her background, national magazines and television programs profiled her even before she swooped to victory on Election Day, outpacing her nearest opponent by more than 20 points. After her first week in Congress, we’d agreed to meet at the Albuquerque BioPark’s Botanic Garden to talk about climate change. And on a cold, cloudy morning, we ducked inside the garden’s faux-cave, complete with giant toadstools and plaster footprints of prehistoric creatures. Neither warm, nor particularly quiet, the cave is a uniquely terrible place to conduct an interview.

Professor warns legislators: Get serious on climate

Walk around the Capitol, and much of the talk is about an oil boom that is buoying the state’s finances, providing more money for schools and whatever else. But for an hour on Thursday, a climate scientist urged one committee of legislators to look past all of that. “The world will be moving away from fossil fuel production,” David Gutzler, a professor at the University of New Mexico and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told members of the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Gutzler went on to paint a stark picture of New Mexico in a changing climate. The mountains outside Albuquerque will look like the mountains outside El Paso by the end of the century if current trends continue, he said.

Q&A with incoming NMED head: A commitment ‘to go big on environmental issues’

On Monday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced more executive appointments, including James Kenney as Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department. The next day, Kenney sat down with NM Political Report to talk about his vision for the agency. Though he hadn’t officially started the job yet, the secretary-designate wanted to set a tone of transparency, which he expects to be “ubiquitous” throughout state agencies under Lujan Grisham. Having a more transparent website and a social media presence, he said, will also help people “feel confident that their environment is healthy, that their community is robust, and … that NMED is out there doing its job, and that we’re proud to implement our mission.”

Related: Q&A with NM’s incoming energy secretary

NMED doesn’t exist within a vacuum, he said, and the department will work closely with other state agencies, tribes, communities and nonprofits. “I think being a cabinet secretary means that you use your ears more than your mouth,” Kenney said.

Q&A with NM’s incoming energy secretary

Last week, Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham started announcing appointments to top spots in state government. Among the positions she announced was her choice for secretary of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), Sarah Cottrell Propst. Most recently, Propst worked as executive director of Interwest Energy Alliance, a nonprofit trade association of renewable energy companies in six western states, including New Mexico. During the administration of Gov. Bill Richardson, Propst served as his energy and environment advisor, and then as deputy secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). She came to New Mexico after earning a master’s degree from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Drought persists over Four Corners, rivers & reservoirs low across the SW

The Four Corners is at the epicenter of drought in the continental United States, even as conditions in other parts of the Southwest improve. “The Four Corners is getting further and further behind in precipitation,” said Royce Fontenot, senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, during a briefing Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Integrated Drought Information System. “That’s had a huge impact on local water supplies, particularly local municipal water supplies in the Four Corners.”

He noted, “Almost all the reservoirs through the intermountain West are below normal for where they should be this year.”

Two of the worst-hit systems, he said, are the Rio Grande and the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River. But the Chama, Jemez, San Francisco and Gila rivers in New Mexico are also lower than normal for this time of year. In southern New Mexico, Elephant Butte Reservoir on the Rio Grande has bumped up a bit from earlier this fall—but is still only at about six percent capacity.

Federal climate report shows how climate change will impact U.S. economy, infrastructure and more

Climate change is here. It’s human-caused. And it’s going to deliver a blow to American prosperity. Already hard-hit by drought, wildfires and declining water supplies, the southwestern United States will continue to face those challenges—and new ones. That’s the message from a federal report released over the holiday weekend about climate change and its impact on the U.S. economy and infrastructure.

‘Cranes are our fall gods’

I’ve given a handful of presentations about water, climate change and politics in quick succession over the past few weeks. Flashing the requisite slides on the screen—a dry Rio Grande in April, woefully low reservoirs this summer and fall, graphs showing temperature increases over decades—I’ve watched your faces in the audience. I’ve seen your shock over emptying reservoirs. Grief at the photo of hollowed-out fish at the edge of the sandy channel, where they took refuge until the last puddles dried. I’ve looked at the older white men whose faces are the physical manifestation of the messages I sometimes receive: “What does she know?” And I’m still thinking about the silver-haired woman who teared up when she mentioned her brand-new grandbabies.

The next governor must prioritize water and climate change

The next governor of New Mexico needs to understand climate change—its cause, the immediate and far-reaching impacts to our state and the need for substantive action. We’re far past a time when denial or doubt can be indulged. Today, there’s not even time for rhetoric or vague promises. In early October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that humans must drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade. Failing to do so means failing to hold warming below levels that will have catastrophic and irreversible impacts upon the Earth’s ecosystems.

Globally, the temperature—averaged between land and sea temperatures—has already risen 1° Celsius, or 1.8° Fahrenheit, since 1880.

On the Colorado River, will New Mexico be left in the dust?

The Colorado River supplies water for more than 36 million people in two countries and seven states, including New Mexico. As river flows and reservoir levels decline due to drought, warming and over-demand, states are wrangling over how to voluntarily conserve water use—before reservoir levels reach critically low levels and trigger mandatory cutbacks. New Mexico is one of the states most vulnerable to the impacts climate change is wreaking on the river. Yet, it’s unclear what the state is doing when it comes to drought management in the state and basin-wide negotiations on the Colorado. The seven states subject to the Colorado River Compact are divided into Upper Basin states—Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah—and Lower Basin states—Arizona, Nevada and California.