March 20, 2017

Around NM: Springtime highs, Water Project Fund, dropping oil prices and more

Laura Paskus

Coyote in the bosque near Valle del Oro National Wildlife Refuge

Happy First Day of Spring!

It’s hot out there. Record hot, in fact. On Sunday, the Albuquerque Sunport hit 80 degrees—making it the 3rd earliest 80-degree day for that location’s recorded history. This morning, the National Weather Service office in Albuquerque said those above normal high temperatures will continue in central and eastern New Mexico—and that the winds will return, too.


Global map of the February 2017 LOTI (land-ocean temperature index) anomaly shows that North America and Siberia were again much warmer than the 1951-1980 base period, and that Europe was relatively warm.

According to NASA, last month was the second warmest February in 137 years of record-keeping. Only February 2016 was warmer.

In New Mexico, these high spring temperatures threaten the state’s snowpack, increase the risk of wildfire and mean bad news for the state’s conifer forests.

In anticipation of an above-normal wildfire season, the State Land Office is stepping up work on  State Trust Lands within the bosque along the Rio Grande. According to a press release from the office, the state owns 184 acres on both sides of the river, south of the Valle del Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque’s South Valley. As part of the project, crews from the state and the Youth Conservation Corps are removing non-native vegetation like tamarisk, Russian olive and Siberian elm and then reseeding areas with native grasses and flowers.

Water bill sneaks through

It wasn’t a great year for environmental legislation. But it looks like an important water spending bill has received what’s called a “pocket pass” from Gov. Susana Martinez.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes’s Water Project Fund bill was sent to the governor’s office last week. Because she didn’t sign it within three days, it passed into law today.

Senate Bill 44 authorizes the New Mexico Finance Authority to make loans or grants for 32 projects from the state’s water project fund.

Oil prices dropping

Paging New Mexico lawmakers and officials who think that increased oil and gas drilling is the only answer to the state’s budget woes.

Reuters reported that oil prices fell—thanks to concerns over growing U.S. production.

According to the story:

Benchmark Brent crude futures were down 31 cents at $51.45 a barrel by 1409 GMT. U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures fell by 52 cents to $48.26.

“Speculative investors have thrown in the towel, it seems. We’ve got record selling in the week ending March 14 and the bleeding has not stopped yet,” said Carsten Fritsch, senior commodities analyst at Commerzbank in Frankfurt.

Oil futures have retreated in the past two weeks as a supply overhang driven by rising production from the United States overshadows a deal by OPEC and other producers to rein in crude output.

New Mexicans might remember that increased drilling—and new drilling technologies—helped flood the market with natural gas, driving down prices and in 2010, costing about 5,000 people their jobs  in the San Juan Basin alone.

Our environment stories from last week:
Chaco memorial hits at deeper issues
Bill for oversight of Gila diversion project dies in committee
Oil and gas penalty bill passes committee
Digging into Zinke’s public lands lead ammo ban reversal
To catch up on the end of the legislative session, search our homepage:

Gila meeting minutes

We reported last week that a bill to increase oversight of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission’s spending died in the Senate Finance Committee. Rather than passing the bill onto the Senate floor, the committee’s leadership tabled Senate Bill 340 and asked the bill’s supporters and opponents to resolve the issues on their own.

The ISC and the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, which is charged with planning and managing the proposed Gila River diversion, both opposed the bill.

During the committee meeting, ISC Director Deborah Dixon said the bill would delay the state’s ability to meet federal deadlines required to receive funding for the diversion.

While answering questions from senators about things like transparency and the state’s spending on the diversion, Dixon said that the CAP Entity’s monthly meeting minutes are published.

It’s unclear, however, where those meeting minutes are published.

This reporter has repeatedly written about the entity’s lack of a website and its members use of personal, rather than state emails. Currently, agendas and meeting minutes are emailed only to those who have requested them.

Last week, NM Political Report emailed the ISC’s communications director, asking where CAP Entity meeting minutes are published. We’ll let you know as soon as we hear back.

Pearce: unhappy with Forest Service, National Parks

In a U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands last week, Rep. Steve Pearce fired shots at the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service.

Pearce criticized the Forest Service for creating “defacto wilderness” areas that cause hardship to local ranchers and wood haulers. He also called out the National Park Service for its “failed leadership and growing land portfolio,” which he said are the “main drivers of the maintenance backlog.”

In particular, the Republican criticized the National Park Service’s handling of the elevator situation at Carlsbad Caverns. Over the past year and a half, the elevators have been closed at different times for repairs.

Related story: Pearce named to Natural Resources Committee

In the subcommittee meeting, Peace said the Park Service “did nothing” about the elevators for 50 years and were “completely inept as they tried to work through the process to get them fixed.” You can watch a video of the congressman here.

During shutdowns, people can still visit the caverns by taking the 1.25 mile-hike. Last spring, Santa Fe Reporter Editor Julie Ann Grimm and I took advantage of one of those shut-downs. On Easter weekend, we visited the caverns, expecting we’d have the place to ourselves because people wouldn’t be willing to walk the slick, steep trail. Instead? The place was packed with families, older couples, teenagers and visitors from other countries, including Mexico. The caverns were beautiful, and I found the diversity of folks hoofing it down and up the trail pretty heartwarming.

Eastern NM borehole drilling

Just because Quay County commissioners pulled their support last month for a project that would explore possible sites to store nuclear waste in deep boreholes hasn’t deterred contractors or the U.S. Department of Energy.

According to a story in RadWaste Monitor:

In December, then-DOE Undersecretary for Science and Energy Franklin Orr announced that four bidders would participate in the first phase: ENERCON Federal Services and DOSECC Exploration Services, for a site in Quay County, N.M.; RESPEC, for a site in Haakon County, S.D.; AECOM, for a site in Pecos County, Texas; and TerranearPMC, for a site in Otero County, N.M. But Orr made clear that the teams must establish an agreement with the local community to advance in site selection.

The first phase is due to wrap up in May, at which time the bidders must show that communities understand the project and that their fears have been addressed, Griffith said. This stage has proven complicated for more than one of the bidding teams. For example: The Quay County Commission last month rescinded an earlier resolution of support for ENERCON’s plan after residents came out in force against it at a meeting. But ENERCON has scheduled additional public meetings this month in Quay County and nearby jurisdictions to discuss economic and other benefits of the project, company spokesman Chip Cameron said Friday.

“The previous rescission was not an indication that they do not support the project. They just want more information,” he said.

Weekly science reading

Jennifer LaVista, USGS

USGS scientist Jayne Belnap examines instrumentation to measure photosynthetic rates of biocrusts.

Ever been walking off-trail in the desert and noticed dirt that’s kind of bubbled up and black-speckled? Most likely you’re trudging across fragile biocrusts. Those are lichens, mosses, bacteria and other organisms that fertilize and hold down desert soil. They’re also something that the U.S. Geological Survey’s Jayne Belnap has been studying for years.

Now, according to a new study from USGS, arid and semiarid ecosystems are expected to experience changes in temperature and precipitation patterns. In turn, those changes may affect the mosses, lichen and cyanobacteria that make up the desert’s “living skin.”

The impacts are important in a few different ways.

Jennifer LaVista, USGS

Biocrusts provide soil stability and prevent erosion. Soil is the foundation where plants live; if soil is not stable, native plants can have difficulty growing.

On the one hand, the changes may result in increased erosion, increased dust storms and decreased soil fertility. The changes would also mean less carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere via the tiny desert plants.

On the other hand, the replacement of the biocrust mosses and lichens with light-colored cyanobacteria would mean that more sunlight would be reflected back to space, rather than absorbed by the Earth.

You can read the peer-reviewed study online here.