State reports 110 new cases and three deaths related to COVID-19

State health officials reported Tuesday 110 new cases of COVID-19 and three related deaths. The state has now recorded a total of 27,790 cases of the disease and 854 deaths since the pandemic began in March. Three counties reported double-digit increases in new cases. Bernalillo County reported 21 new cases, Doña Ana County reported 18 new cases and Eddy County reported 14 new cases. The state Department of Health provided a few details about each of the three deaths:

A female in her 70s from Bernalillo County who had underlying conditions.A male in his 90s from Eddy County.A male in his 90s from Santa Fe County who was a resident of the Las Palomas Center facility in Albuquerque.

Armed with new research, ranchers rethink depredation

Rangeland management of the 20th century was dominated by killing anything and everything that threatened livestock. Predators, and especially wolves, were characterized as both nuisance and threat to ranchers and hunters alike for most of the last century. 

As the nature writer Aldo Leopold once wrote about the first quarter of the 20th century, “In those days we had never heard of passing up the chance to kill a wolf.”

That mindset, encapsulated by extermination campaigns waged by the U.S. government up until the 1960s, brought species like the Mexican gray wolf to the brink of extinction. Today, wolves, coyotes and other predators are still considered public enemy number one in many ranching communities. But a growing body of research indicates that killing predators doesn’t actually help prevent attacks, and may in fact lead to increased conflicts between humans and livestock. 

“There’s this old saying, if you kill a coyote, two show up to its funeral,” said Michelle Lute, National Carnivore Conservation Manager at Project Coyote, adding that there is now an “increasing scientific understanding around why people say that.”

“We didn’t know that for a long time, because science only answers the questions that we ask of it,” Lute said. “We just made this assumption that we’re going to kill a bunch of coyotes and of course that’s going to help.”

Now, there are hints that the mindset among some ranchers around wolves and other predators is beginning to shift away from lethal management and towards something like coexistence, where preventative management practices are employed to keep livestock losses at a minimum, while keeping the rangeland ecosystem healthy. 

Such techniques “prevent loss before they occur, which is better for everybody,” Lute said.

Water reckoning looms in New Mexico’s future: ‘We’re not prepared for what’s ahead of us’

Water experts painted a grim picture of New Mexico’s water future during a panel discussion focused on water policy and management. The panel was hosted by Retake Democracy, an advocacy group based in Santa Fe. 

Dave Gutzler, a professor at UNM’s Earth and Planetary Sciences department, emphasized that climate change is here, and is already impacting the state’s precipitation patterns. 

“Anyone who’s lived here for a while knows that variability is endemic to New Mexico,” Gutzler said. “But the climate is now changing in ways that go beyond natural variability.”

Gutzler said climate change will have three major impacts to water resources in the state. 

“One of them is that the temperature is going up. It’s already going up rapidly,” he said, pointing to data that shows average temperatures in the state have already risen 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1970s. 

“That is causing rapid decline in snowpack, rapid increase in evaporation rates, [and] a decrease in groundwater recharge,” he said. “Just the temperature change itself will have an effect on a lot of resources.”

Gutzler said the climate will also become more “energetic” and variable. 

“That means the rainfall will tend to be delivered in more intense doses, and the dry spells will also be more intense,” he said. 

And thirdly, he said, the weather will permanently move north. 

“We expect the winter storm track to shift northward and take the precipitation— rain and snow—with it,” he said.

State reports 159 new cases and 4 deaths related to COVID-19

State health officials announced 159 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday and four deaths related to the disease. The state has now recorded 27,199 cases of the illness since the start of the pandemic and 836 related deaths. 

Bernalillo County reported the most new cases of COVID-19, with 38. Six other counties also reported double-digit increases in cases: Doña Ana County (21), Chaves County (17), Lea County (15), Luna County (11), Eddy County (10) and Santa Fe County (10). 

The state Department of Health released some details about the four deaths: 

A male in his 60s from Bernalillo County who was hospitalized and had underlying conditions.A male in his 70s from Lea County who was hospitalized.A male in his 40s from McKinley County who had underlying conditions.A male in his 60s from Santa Fe County who had underlying conditions. DOH did not disclose which underlying condition any person had, because of privacy issues, only if one was present. The number of individuals currently hospitalized for COVID-19 jumped to 69, an increase of 10 since Wednesday.

Testimony highlights conflicting reports on support for Wild and Scenic bill for Gila Wilderness

Representatives from two opposing groups in New Mexico testified before the U.S. House Energy and Natural Resources Committee Wednesday, painting conflicting portraits of support for a bill that would see portions of the Gila River receive federal Wild and Scenic designations. 

The M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act would designate 446 miles of the Gila River and other waters in the Gila and San Francisco water basin as either wild or scenic, protecting those portions of river from future development. U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich presented the legislation at the hearing. The bill is named after M.H. Dutch Salmon, a nature writer and longtime advocate of the Gila River who passed away in 2019. Heinrich said the bill would “permanently protect some of the most dynamic and spectacular rivers and streams in our country.”

“The Gila and San Francisco Rivers are the beating heart of southwest New Mexico and are home to some of the most spectacular places in the west, full stop,” he said. 

Udall said the bill was the result of two years of work by groups in New Mexico, and said the bill was drafted with extensive input from various stakeholders. 

“Sen. Heinrich and I took the unusual step of posting a discussion draft of the legislation early this year, which we revised to reflect community concerns,” Udall said. 

RELATED: A win for the state’s last wild river

Udall and Heinrich were joined by Jamie Crockett, the co-owner of Gila Backcountry Services, who also spoke in favor of the bill. 

“This bill is the result of a grassroots movement and nearly a decade of work, from and by the people of my community, to guarantee protections of these rivers, their values, their current uses, and our traditional ways of life,” Crockett said.

Conservationists hope Caja del Rio will benefit from fire’s regenerative effects

On a dry and dusty afternoon in August, a white hot bolt of lightning zipped down from a thunderhead to the parched land below, sparking the dry grass of the Caja del Rio plateau. A few hours later, acres of land on the plateau were aflame and thick black smoke was billowing up from the landscape as the wildfire grew. 

At the time, the Forest Service was already battling the Medio Fire, a larger wildfire burning northwest of Santa Fe in the Santa Fe National Forest. Early reports based on aerial surveillance estimated the Caja del Rio fire had burned 600 acres of land, but the Forest Service later revised the fire’s footprint down to 158 acres. One week later, the Caja del Rio fire was considered contained, while the Medio Fire still raged some 30 miles north. It would take another three weeks before that fire was fully contained. 

The Medio Fire, which burned some 4,000 acres, returned attention to the impacts of climate change on New Mexico’s landscape, and the role of wildfire in forest management.

Cannon Air Force Base to pay $250k for PFAS permit violations; contamination cleanup slow

Cannon Air Force Base will pay a $251,000 “administrative fee” to the state in lieu of the $1.7 million fine that the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) imposed on the Air Force earlier this year for alleged permit violations related to PFAS contamination.  

PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are toxic, human-manufactured chemicals that can move through groundwater and biological systems. Human exposure to PFAS increases the risk of testicular, kidney and thyroid cancers as well as other severe illnesses. The chemicals were used in firefighting foam in military bases across the country, including at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases, until 2016. The Air Force began investigating PFAS discharges across its installations in 2015, and the chemicals were detected in 2018 in groundwater at Cannon Air Force Base, located west of Clovis in Eastern New Mexico and at Holloman Air Force Base, located west of Alamogordo in Southern New Mexico. The pollutants have also been detected at several dairy farms and private wells that surround the bases. 

RELATED: ‘Everyone is watching New Mexico’: Update shows no progress on PFAS clean up

In January, NMED fined the Air Force $1.7 million for multiple violations of state law regarding PFAS chemicals at Cannon Air Force Base and issued an administrative compliance order to the Air Force for unlawfully discharging wastewater without a groundwater permit at Cannon Air Force Base since April 1, 2019, after the permit expired at the end of March. 

At the time, NMED said it may assess penalties of up to $25,000 per day for “continued noncompliance.” 

Last week, the Water Quality Control Commission approved a settlement agreement between NMED and the Air Force over the permit violations. The Air Force submitted its permit renewal documents on January 15, 2020, five days after the compliance order was issued. 

The permit renewal has not yet been approved, but NMED and the Air Force reached a settlement agreement that allows the Air Force to continue operating and discharging effluent from its wastewater treatment facility in the meantime. 

The two parties also agreed that the Air Force would pay an administrative fee of $250,947.60 to NMED instead of the $1.7 million fine, thereby resolving the compliance order “in compromise” and “to avoid further legal proceedings,” the settlement agreement states. 

An NMED spokesperson confirmed that the $251,000 fee and settlement agreement is “entirely limited to the Department’s January 2020 administrative compliance order for violations of groundwater discharge permitting program requirements.” The settlement has no bearing on litigation between the state and the U.S. Department of Defense related to PFAS contamination at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases “caused by decades of use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams,” according to NMED. 

RELATED: New Mexico joins multidistrict litigation against firefighting foam manufacturers for PFAS contamination

“Unfortunately, federal facilities in New Mexico have a history of disregarding state environmental laws,” said NMED Secretary James Kenney in a statement.

State reports 103 new cases of COVID-19 and 2 deaths Sunday

State health officials reported 103 new cases of COVID-19 and two new deaths related to the disease Sunday. There have now been 26,761 reported cases of the disease in New Mexico since the start of the pandemic and 823 related deaths. 

Chaves County had the most new cases with 29, continuing a trend of higher new cases in the county over the last week. Three other counties reported double-digit increases in new cases: Bernalillo County reported 19 new cases, Lea County reported 14 new cases and Doña Ana County reported 10 new cases. The two deaths were two females in their 70s in Bernalillo County. Both individuals had underlying health conditions, but DOH does not disclose which underlying condition because of privacy concerns.

DOI ‘expediting’ Chaco drilling proposal during pandemic

A proposal that would increase oil and gas drilling in the Greater Chaco region of northwest New Mexico is one of a long list of energy projects that are being “expedited” by the U.S. Department of Interior during the COVID-19 pandemic, under the direction of the Trump Administration. 

The information was revealed in a letter dated July 15 from the DOI Deputy Secretary Katharine MacGregor and obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and provided to NM Political Report. 

The revelation comes as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) face sharp criticism from state government officials, congressional lawmakers and local communities in the northwest portion of the state for the agencies’ handling of the public comment period associated with the proposal, conducted amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

‘Hollow’ promise of public engagement

The Farmington field office of the BLM is in the midst of amending the area’s resource management plan, which governs oil and gas development on BLM lands. BLM officials have been working on the proposal, referred to as the Mancos-Gallup RMPA, for years, but in late February—just days before the COVID-19 pandemic hit New Mexico—the BLM released a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the plan, which triggered a 60-day public comment period. The proposal could enable up to 3,000 new oil and gas wells to be drilled in the area. 

Communities in northwestern New Mexico, including the Navajo Nation, were hit hard and fast by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As cases of COVID-19 surged in the area, tribal governments and local community groups in the Greater Chaco region requested the BLM extend the public comment period during the public health emergency. That call was echoed by the state government, the congressional delegation, and tribal leaders.

Congressional panel examines environmental justice issues in New Mexico

U.S. Reps. Deb Haaland and Raúl Grijalva hosted a panel discussion this week about environmental justice issues in New Mexico. Local speakers discussed a wide range of environmental issues during the panel, which was held in support of the Environmental Justice for All Act currently sitting in the House Natural Resources Committee. 

“Race, poverty and the environment are increasingly recognized as interlocking issues,” said panelist Richard Moore, coordinator of the Albuquerque-based Los Jardines Institute. Moore described environmental racism as “the intentional targeting of communities of color and other communities for anything that they [wealthier communities] don’t want in their neighborhoods.”

“Low-income communities, especially people of color, are impacted by toxic pollution,” Moore said. “Children, the elderly and women—especially women of color—are paying the highest price from pollution as a result of increased work and health problems, and economic devastation.”

Haaland said COVID-19 pandemic has “put a spotlight on the legacy of environmental racism and injustice that has left frontline communities far more susceptible to that disease than others.” 

RELATED: For Greater Chaco communities, air pollution compounds COVID-19 threat

“For years, powerful elites have treated some communities as sacrifice zones.