Keeping the river and its ecosystems ‘alive enough’ during dry spells

Actor and author Will Rogers once famously described the Rio Grande in the 1930s as “the only river I saw that needed irrigation.”

“That’s kind of what we’re doing,” said Mike Hamman, CEO and chief engineer at the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD), as he described how the district is working to ensure water remains flowing in the Rio Grande in what’s shaping up to be one of the driest years for the river in decades.   

The MRGCD is a member of the 2016 Biological Opinion partners, a group of entities that have agreed to manage the river in a way that doesn’t jeopardize three threatened and endangered species that are dependent on the river for survival. Under that framework, the MRGCD helps manage water coming from different sources as it moves through the MRGCD system. Part of that agreement includes putting water back into the river downstream, essentially “irrigating” it. 

RELATED: A river runs dry: Climate change offers opportunity to rethink water management on the Rio Grande

“We have committed to do various things, and one of them is to operate the river in a way to minimize drying,” Hamman said. “We take certain blocks of water, we move them through our system and we put them in at various points downstream of Isleta Diversion Dam, called outfalls.”

Outfalls are channels that divert water. Hamman said there are six different outfalls attached to the MRGCD irrigation system that feeds water back into the Rio Grande. 

This year has been a challenge for everyone who relies on the river: humans, plants and animals alike.

Bill to protect traditional land uses for land grant and acequia communities advances in the House

A bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján and co-sponsored by Rep. Deb Haaland that would help land grant and acequia communities retain access to public lands for traditional uses  advanced in Congress. 

The Land Grant and Acequia Traditional Use Recognition and Consultation Act would require more consultation between the federal government and land grant and acequia groups in New Mexico in public lands management. 

“The legislation will make it easier for land grant mercedes to work with federal land management agencies such as the Forest Service,” Luján said during a virtual legislative hearing in June, by requiring federal agencies “to make land grant mercedes aware of changes to management plans and encouraging agencies to mitigate any adverse impacts due to federal action.”

The bill would also create “a process to allow New Mexico’s land grants to establish their historic boundaries and provides them with pathways for acquiring that land when the federal government disposes of it,” Luján said, and that it would “ensure that the federal government appropriately recognizes spiritual and cultural sites while providing greater tools for land grants to acquire the lands that these sites reside on.”

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the Spanish crown, and later the Mexican government, offered land grants to communities and individuals in New Mexico and across the southwest to promote settlement of the area. The land grants included tracts of communal land that were used for livestock grazing, firewood access and water delivery infrastructure such as acequias. 

After the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which transferred more than half of the territory in Mexico to the United States, the U.S. federal government was tasked with establishing a process for adjudicating the land grant titles. 

Instead, the government sold off millions of acres of communal land, which Arturo Archuleta, program manager at the New Mexico Land Grant Council, said jeopardized those communities’ survival and their agrarian way of life. 

“Our communities included common lands that provided the natural resources needed for our survival. These common lands were never intended to be privatized nor alienated from the communities’ common ownership and use,” Archuleta said during the virtual hearing. 

The adjudication process was “faulty, inefficient, inequitable and in some cases fraudulent and corrupt — oftentimes, with U.S. federal government officials directly involved in the corruption,” Archuleta said. 

“The end result of this unjust process was that millions of acres of common lands were stripped of the ownership of our local communities. Much of these former common lands are now managed by federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management,” he said. 

Archuleta said the bill, the product of 10 years of work between land grant and acequia communities and the state’s congressional delegation, offers “important first steps in rectifying the historical injustices that have crippled our communities for over a century.”

“Over the years, our communities have been placed at odds with federal land management agencies, not by our own choice, but as a direct result of having our traditional use needs ignored — partly because we are not always at the table when land management decisions are being made,” Archuleta said. “The passage of [bill] H.R. 3682 would help ensure federal land management policies and practices regardless of changes in the administration, will honor, respect, protect and conserve our traditional uses now and for future generations.” 

The bill moved out of the House Committee on Natural Resources on July 30 and now heads to the House floor.

Worsening air quality in Permian Basin ‘cause for concern’

Jeremy Nichols, director of WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program, is concerned about the air people are breathing in southeastern New Mexico. Nichols tracks ozone levels in Eddy and Lea counties, the state’s top oil producing counties in the Permian Basin. In early July, a key ambient air quality monitor near Carlsbad was abruptly shut down, after a monitoring station operator noticed the A/C unit at the site wasn’t working properly and the facility was getting too hot for the electronics. Nichols is worried about the incident because the monitor in question had recorded ozone levels in that area exceeding the federal standards before it was shut off.  Now, it’s not reporting any data on air quality in the Carlsbad area. “It basically means that people are not getting any information on the quality of the air they breathe,” he said.

State officials report 226 new cases and 3 deaths related to COVID-19 on Sunday

State health officials reported 226 new cases of COVID-19 Sunday and three additional deaths related to the disease. The new cases bring the state’s total to 21,016 recorded cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. The number of those who have died has now reached 654. Bernalillo County, the state’s most populous county, reported the highest number of new cases with 61. Doña Ana County reported 35 new cases, continuing an uptick in new cases reported there since mid-July.

‘New Mexico is leading the nation’: Renewables set to replace coal-fired San Juan Generating Station

With a unanimous vote Wednesday morning, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (PRC) ended one piece of a year-long debate on the future of coal in the Four Corners region. The utility PNM, which is slated to exit the San Juan Generating Station in 2022, will now need to rely on 100 percent renewable energy and battery storage to replace the power generated at the coal-fired plant. 

Commissioners were faced with the tough decision of weighing the economic future of the Four Corners area with the climate goals of the landmark Energy Transition Act (ETA), a 2019 law which mandates the state move to 100 percent carbon-free electricity generation by 2050. 

“With all the facts put on the table, and all the facts that our hearing examiners worked on, we’re moving New Mexico forward,” said PRC chairperson Theresa Becenti-Aguilar during the meeting. “And the changing energy economy in the communities of the San Juan station—it’s happening, it’s moving today.”

The decision was lauded by a multitude of clean energy advocacy, environmental and grassroots community groups that called on the commission to approve the replacement power scenario proposed by the Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy. The proposal includes 650 MW of solar resources and 300 MW of battery storage resources, with 430 MW of solar and $447 million worth of capital investments located within the Central Consolidated School District in San Juan County. Another 520 MW of renewable energy and roughly $500 million of capital investment would be located in McKinley County and the Jicarilla Apache reservation in Rio Arriba County.

Groups critical of OCD’s ‘bare bones’ proposed rule for produced water

Conservation and environmental groups are unhappy with the state’s first step towards regulating the use of treated produced water, a toxic waste byproduct of oil and gas activity, outside the oilfield. 

The state Oil Conservation Division (OCD), which sits within the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), released a proposed rule amendment in late June to align its produced water regulations with new mandates established in the state Produced Water Act, which was signed into law in 2019. The law established jurisdictional and legal clarity over produced water use in New Mexico and aimed to encourage oil and gas producers to reuse produced water when possible rather than rely on fresh water sources for oil and gas extraction. 

As unconventional drilling exploded over the past few years in New Mexico, so has the amount of wastewater being produced. Every barrel of oil generates four to seven barrels of wastewater, of which oil and gas operators must pay to dispose. In 2018 alone, over a billion barrels of wastewater was produced in New Mexico. 

Oil and gas operators are having a hard time disposing of that waste, and are increasingly looking for uses for the water outside the oil field. That’s led to a push among some oil-producing states to begin formulating new rules that would allow for produced water to be treated and put to use in other sectors, such as road construction and management, and even irrigation.

State hits ‘all-time high’ with 343 new COVID-19 cases

State health officials reported a record 343 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday and five deaths related to the disease. The state has recorded a total of 18,163 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and a total of 596 individuals have died. 

It’s the sixth day the state has reported over 300 cases, and the 22nd consecutive day the state has reported more than 200 new cases. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a press conference Thursday afternoon that the numbers are cause for concern. 

“That is our all-time high since we’ve been battling this pandemic. That in and of itself is not good news,” Lujan Grisham said. 

Bernalillo County, the state’s most populous county, reported 126 cases, while five other counties reported double-digit increases in new cases, including Lea County, which has experienced an uptick in cases since the beginning of July.  

New Mexico Department of Health (DOH) officials have processed a total of 496,985 tests. Of the 7,651 tests processed since Wednesday, 4.4 percent were positive. 

There are currently 167 individuals hospitalized for COVID-19, a decrease of 11 since Wednesday.

Draft methane rules focus on data collection, technological solutions

The New Mexico Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department released their respective draft rules targeting methane emissions and ozone precursor pollutants Monday. EMNRD Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst called the draft rules “pre-proposals” ahead of the official rulemaking process that’s slated to take place in the fall. 

“We felt it was very important for the public and the regulated community and anyone to be able to take a look at draft regulatory language side by side from our departments and give us feedback,” Cottrell Propst said during a press conference Tuesday morning. 

The draft rules are the culmination of nearly a year of work by the state’s Methane Advisory Panel, which was composed of oil and gas representatives, environmental groups and other stakeholders. Cottrell Propst said the process had been “incredibly collaborative” with stakeholders and said the two departments looked at other states’ methane rules in developing their own. 

EMNRD’s 2-phase rule

EMNRD’s proposed draft rule, which Cottrell Propst described as an umbrella regulation, would roll out in two phases. The first phase would involve data collection and “robust” reporting from oil and gas operators in the state’s two oil-producing basins. 

“We know that having accurate data is really important for establishing meaningful baselines and enforceable goals to reduce natural gas waste,” Cottrell Propst said. “Historically, the industry has not reported consistent and complete data for venting and flaring to us.

240 new cases of COVID-19, 2 deaths; Lea County reports record high

State health officials announced Sunday 240 new cases of COVID-19 and two additional deaths related to the disease. Sunday marks the 18th day in a row that the state has reported more than 200 new cases. 

Lea County reported a record-high 35 new cases. Bernalillo reported 99 new cases for the second day in a row; Doña Ana County reported 30 new cases, while three other counties reported low double-digit increases. 

New Mexico has now had a total of 16,971 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic started. The state processed 8,551 tests since Saturday, representing a 2.8 percent positivity rate. The two deaths bring the state’s death toll to 571.

280 new cases of COVID-19, 8 counties report double-digit increases

State health officials announced Saturday 280 new cases of COVID-19 and four additional deaths related to the disease. The new cases bring the state’s total tally of COVID-19 cases to 16,736 reported since the start of the pandemic in early March. Saturday marks the 17th day in a row that the state has reported more than 200 new cases, and a whopping eight counties reported double-digit case increases. Those counties include Bernalillo (99), Doña Ana (46), San Juan (20), McKinley (19), Curry (11), Santa Fe (11), Sandoval (10) and Lea (10). The state also reported 13 new cases of COVID-19 at the New Mexico Corrections Department’s Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Valencia County. 

The state processed 8,366 tests since Friday, representing a 3.3 percent positivity rate. 

There are currently 160 individuals hospitalized with the disease, a decrease of six since Friday.