Last week, while New Mexicans orchestrated New Year’s Eve celebrations around snowstorm warnings from the National Weather Service (NWS), the agency’s meteorologists and forecasters were working without pay—and without any certainty about the future. NWS is under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. And NWS’ mission is to “provide weather, water and climate data, forecasts and warnings for the protection of life and property and enhancement of the national economy.” That means employees of the three field offices that cover New Mexico are considered “excepted” employees, explained Kerry Jones, a warning coordination meteorologist with NWS in Albuquerque. Employees’ forecasts and weather warnings are essential, but they’ve had to forgo all other work—canceling meetings, tours and school visits—while at the same time paring down their social media outreach. Now, like some 800,000 other federal employees nationwide, they’re entering their second pay period without pay.
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.
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:
• At the Santa Fe Reporter, Elizabeth Miller provides an update on Navajo farmers who are still seeking compensation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the 2015 Gold King Mine spill. • At KNAU-FM, Melissa Sevigny spoke with Northern Arizona University forester Nikki Cooley, a member of the Navajo Nation, about the Fourth National Climate Assessment and the impacts of climate change on tribes.
Rachel Conn was in a state wetlands meeting Tuesday when she heard the news: The Trump administration had released its revised Clean Water Rule. For Conn, who has been working on issues related to the rule for more than 15 years, it was another twist in a legal and administrative saga that could leave most of New Mexico’s streams and wetlands without clean water protections. Under the new rule issued Tuesday, almost 60 percent of the waterways and wetlands nationwide would no longer be protected under the Clean Water Act. The new rule says streams that flow only in response to snowmelt or rainfall—“ephemeral” streams—would not be protected. It also questions removing protections from “intermittent” streams, or those that have a baseflow from groundwater recharge, but may not run above-ground throughout the entire year.
Shortly after Michelle Lujan Grisham was elected governor, she started assembling her transition teams for various state agencies. In November, Lujan Grisham announced that Sarah Cottrell Propst and Toby Velasquez will head the Natural Resources Committee, which reviews the agencies that oversee water, energy and environment issues. Velasquez is deputy director of New Mexico State Parks. Cottrell Propst is executive director of Interwest Energy Alliance and served as the energy and environmental policy advisor to Gov. Bill Richardson from 2006 to 2010. Over the weekend, Lujan Grisham announced transition teams for the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department; the Environment Department; the Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission.
The state of New Mexico says the U.S. Air Force needs to immediately develop a plan to protect dairies from chemicals at Cannon Air Force Base. The New Mexico Environment Department announced today that Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis is violating the state’s Water Quality Act and related ground and surface water regulations. The state agency issued a Notice of Violation, which requires the Air Force to create a plan to protect local dairies from contamination in the short-term and also evaluate the possibility of installing systems to treat contaminated water supplies. If the military fails to comply, New Mexico can issue civil penalties of up to $15,000 per day for each violation. Chemicals from fire fighting training activities have been found in the groundwater below Cannon, and in groundwater wells off-base.
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.
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.
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.
Since his days on the campaign trail, President Donald Trump has promised to roll back environmental regulations, boost the use of coal and pull out of the Paris climate agreement — and he’s moving toward doing all those things. He has pushed ahead with such action even as a report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in October concluded that without much stronger measures to reduce the use of fossil fuels, a warming planet will witness the spread of tropical diseases, water shortages and crop die-offs affecting millions of people. Supporters of the administration’s changes — some of whom are skeptical of accepted science — say the administration’s moves will save money, produce jobs and give more power to states. But critics say new strictures on scientific research and efforts to overturn standards for protecting air, water and worker safety could have long-term, widespread effects that would upend hard-won gains in environmental and public health. The Trump administration’s many environmental proposals vary widely in target and reach.