This week, we’re running a series of interviews with New Mexico’s four gubernatorial candidates, each of whom answered questions about issues related to water, energy and climate change. Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham currently serves as New Mexico’s congresswoman for the first congressional district. Before that, she worked in New Mexico state government as secretary of the Department of Aging and Long Term Services and the Department of Health. NMPR: We’re coming off a bad winter and drought has returned to the state, what critical water issues are you keeping an eye on right now? Michelle Lujan Grisham: I would actually disagree with your question.
This week, we’re running a series of interviews with New Mexico’s four gubernatorial candidates, each of whom answered questions about issues related to water, energy and climate change. We kick off the series with Democrat Jeff Apodaca. Apodaca is a former media executive and the son of former Gov. Jerry Apodaca. NMPR: We’re coming off a bad winter and we’ve got drought returning to the state. What critical water issues will your administration tackle?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The tony neighborhoods tucked into the juniper-dotted grasslands on the east side of the Sandia Mountains represent yet another battleground in New Mexico’s water wars, one in which the state’s top water official has abandoned one side for the other. Last week, testimony ended in a trial over whether a private company can pump more water—114 million gallons more each year—from the Sandia Basin. Nancy Benson and her husband live in San Pedro Creek Estates, where they built their retirement home in 2000 after living in Albuquerque. She is shocked the state would consider granting the application after rejecting it previously. “This area is fully appropriated, there is nothing extra,” she said.
If you want to be ahead of the curve, sign up to receive our New Mexico Environment Review email on Thursday mornings. -John Fleck is no longer with the Albuquerque Journal, but he just can’t let go of the news. On Wednesday, he published a short piece on his blog about the “breakdown” in the partnership between Kirtland Air Force Base and the New Mexico Environment Department and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. The Air Force is responsible for the leakage of more than 24 million gallons of jet fuel into local groundwater supplies. According to a recent memo from the water authority to the New Mexico Environment Department, which Fleck posted online, the base’s new strategic plans are “disconnected from the stated goal of protecting drinking water and the aquifer and undermine Water Authority’s ability to ensure the safety and quality of drinking water.”
Furthermore, the memo notes that the updated strategy “implies that the site is moving from an active remediation strategy to a passive remediation strategy….” The authority opposes that “as it extends the damages to water resources and places liabilities on the water users and utilities, while allowing the responsible party to take minimal efforts towards corrective action.”
New Mexico’s wildfire season typically begins in May or June. But it’s only March, and New Mexicans are already dealing with wildfires. Earlier this month, a fire ignited on Kirtland Air Force Base, burning about 200 acres. The fire’s cause is still under investigation, according to base officials. But a lack of coordination between the base and local fire departments has worried some East Mountain residents.