NM Environment Review: Energy and EPA news plus climate change hits television in NM

As the legislative session kicks off, don’t expect many bills related to the environment. (Though we will have stories on those coming up soon.) This year’s 30-day session focuses on the state budget. Any other issues require that Gov. Susana Martinez place them on the call. But there’s plenty happening around the state when it comes to energy, regulations and climate. #mc_embed_signup{background:#fff; clear:left; font:14px Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif; width:100%;}
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Goose tornadoes, jumping mice and more at Bosque del Apache

Every year, migrating birds blanket fields and hunker down for the winter along the Middle Rio Grande. Even if you’ve never visited Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of Socorro, you’ve likely seen photographers’ striking images: flocks of snow geese erupting from the water just as the sun peeks above the horizon or closeups of sandhill cranes with their giant wings spread in mating displays. Typically between November and February, tens of thousands of greater sandhill cranes, snow geese and Ross’s geese overwinter at the refuge. “We provide resting habitat and the food to get them through the winter so when they go up for breeding season they’re in good they’re good physical shape for the next year,” says refuge manager Kevin Cobble, adding that the refuge grows corn, seed and native crops to keep the birds from traveling outside the refuge and feeding on local crops on private land. “We try to manipulate our wetlands to simulate what the Rio Grande used to do,” he says.

Judge tosses out water rights mining company was banking on for Copper Flat

At the end of last year, a state judge chipped away at a company’s plans to reopen a long-abandoned copper mine near Hillsboro. On Dec. 28, New Mexico Third Judicial District Court Judge James J. Wechsler found that most of the water rights claimed by the company are not valid. New Mexico Copper Corporation (NMCC) planned to use groundwater rights that two men purchased after operations were abandoned at Copper Flat Mine in 1982. William Frost and Harris Gray, along with NMCC and its attorneys, tried to show that those rights were still valid, even though the water hadn’t been put to use over the past four decades—or even when the mine operated.

Environment news for the new year: power plants, nuclear contracts, water and Clean Power Plan comment period

I hope readers had a restful break from work, school and yes, media, too. To help catch you up on environment news around New Mexico, I have a few links to share. In December, PNM closed two units at its San Juan Generating Station. Now, the utility wants legislative approval to address how it will recover the money it spent on the plant. According to an AP story by Susan Montoya Bryan:
The utility closed two units at the plant in December as part of an agreement to curb haze-causing pollution in the Four Corners region.

2017 Top Stories #3: Staking out standards

Perceived political interference in the classroom made headlines this year, prompting harsh public reaction. In March, the Santa Fe Reporter’s Matt Grubs reported the head of the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) ignored  a unanimous recommendation by a panel of math and science experts to implement the Next Generation Science Standards for four years. See all of our year-end stories

As Grubs wrote:
The sensitive parts of the standards are a tiny but politically charged sliver: human-caused climate change and the theory of evolution. Those have been the sticking points for NGSS adoption in other states that, like New Mexico, lean heavily on revenues from extractive industries. And they were the only academic topics raised by senators and representatives who questioned the new standards this spring in the Capitol.

2017 Top Stories #5: National monuments under fire

About 739,000 acres of public lands in New Mexico became a big news story this year. At the end of April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review a number of national monument designations, including two in New Mexico, made under the Antiquities Act since 1996. See all of our year-end stories

The two New Mexico monuments were the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near Taos and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces

The executive order was a gift to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who had been seeking a way to diminish protections of two monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. At the signing ceremony for the order, Trump recognized Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah Sen. Mike Lee and in particular, Hatch. “Believe me, he’s tough.

Covering the environment in the age of Trump

Writing about the environment wasn’t always a breaking news beat. Sure, there were wildfires and toxic spills. But those were exceptions, not the rule. Environment reporting during the administration of George W. Bush meant keeping a close eye on the activities of Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who we saw centralize White House control over agencies in a way that hadn’t happened before. That administration was notorious for rewriting scientific documents before publication and holding frequent briefings with high-level agency employees.

State water rights experts: Controversial water project is ‘speculative’

Almost 100 people packed into the Catron County Courthouse in Reserve, N.M. last week for a hearing about plans to pump groundwater from beneath the Plains of San Agustin in southwestern New Mexico. Augustin* Plains Ranch, LLC wants to pump 54,000 acre-feet of water—more than 17 billion gallons—each year from the aquifer and pipe it to commercial or municipal water customers hundreds of miles away. The state has rejected similar applications from the company twice. Now, a third application is pending before the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, which administers the state’s water resources. The final decision will lie with the State Engineer, a position currently held by Tom Blaine, who was appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez three years ago.

NM AG joins California on support for methane-waste rule

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has again joined forces with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, this time in a lawsuit against the Trump administration over its suspension of a rule to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. Earlier this month, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delayed implementation of the Obama-era requirement until January 2019. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management rule would have cut methane released from wells and infrastructure on federal and tribal lands by limiting routine flaring and requiring that operators modernize leak-detection technology and fix the leaks they found. It also prevented operators from venting methane directly into the atmosphere in most circumstances. New Mexico and California had supported the original rule, saying it would benefit states in three key ways: generating more annual revenue by cutting natural gas waste, protecting public health from harmful air pollution and reducing the impacts of climate change.

A ‘grand adventure in learning’ along the Rio Grande for students

On a chilly, late-November morning, commuters rumble across the bridge over the Rio Grande on Avenida César Chávez in Albuquerque. Near the river below, two students from the South Valley Academy demonstrate how to measure groundwater levels. Alberto Martinez lowers the aptly-named beeper tape into a vertical pipe in the ground and cranks the reel. When the weighted end of the cable hits water, it beeps. Lynette Diaz records the depth at which it hits groundwater—211 centimeters if you’re curious—and the two head to the next station.