Monsoon flows have prevented some of the water shortages officials were planning for this year, but they won’t be enough to curb the declining reservoirs in the Colorado River basin or significantly reduce New Mexico’s water debt to Texas in the Rio Grande basin. Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, the director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, presented the water conditions to the ISC on Friday. “It’s been very nice to get some of the rains that have been occurring in the past few weeks,” he said. “And the northwest part of New Mexico has been a beneficiary of a good number of those flows. It has propped up the available water for a number of people who otherwise would have been out.”
But even with that additional precipitation, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is projecting that Navajo Reservoir, which is located on the San Juan River and is part of the Colorado River’s watershed, could dip below critical levels next year.
The Center for Biological Diversity says that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has violated the Endangered Species Act when it comes to protecting the lesser prairie chicken. The service published a proposed rule in June 2021 to list two distinct population segments of the lesser prairie chicken.
The Center for Biological Diversity alleges that the Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to finalize the proposed rule in a timely manner. In a court filing made Thursday, the Center for Biological Diversity stated that it intends to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service if the rule is not finalized in the next 60 days. The proposed rule would list the lesser prairie chicken living in southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas, northwest Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle as threatened and the population living in west Texas and eastern New Mexico would be listed as endangered. The Center for Biological Diversity says that the rule should have been finalized in June of this year under Endangered Species Act requirements.
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A lot of news following the Senate passage of the Inflation Reduction Act has focused on provisions to help address climate change, like making it easier for people to purchase electric vehicles. You can read my coverage on the topic here. However, the package is not a death toll for the fossil fuel industry.
The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission denied Southwestern Public Service Company’s request to delay implementing the community solar program while the state Supreme Court weighs an appeal. SPS appealed the PRC’s final ruling in the community solar case in July, which some community solar proponents see as an attempt to stall. In its appeal, SPS argued that the rule does not adequately protect customers. Community solar allows people to receive electricity from small arrays. This is intended to benefit people who cannot afford solar panels for their homes or who rent or live in an apartment where they are not authorized to install solar.
As the federal government directs more and more scrutiny on the Colorado River and its tributaries, the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer is developing systems to better account for how much water is diverted from the San Juan River and how much is returned in hopes of demonstrating to both federal partners and other states that rely on the Colorado River that New Mexico is meeting its obligations. Shawn Williams, the district manager for the Office of the State Engineer, said there will likely be tighter administration of water in the future. New Mexico’s source of Colorado River water is through the San Juan River, along with its tributaries like the Animas River. These rivers flow through San Juan County, though the water from the San Juan is also used by people in Albuquerque. A system of dams and tunnels known as the San Juan-Chama Project diverts water away from the San Juan River in the Navajo Reservoir area into the Rio Grande on the other side of the continental divide.
A new report released this week by Archaeology Southwest and The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks calls for increased protection of cultural resources like Chaco Culture National Historical Park from oil and gas development. “To honor and protect our diverse and shared heritage, America’s national parks and monuments must be preserved and protected to the maximum extent possible. But the presence of oil and gas development on their doorstep is a stark threat to their long-term protection,” the report states. Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest, said the report is intended to give President Joe Biden’s administration input about management of sites. The groups chose five locations to focus on.
A package of about 50 bills to address wildfires, drought and climate change passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday on a 218-199 vote and now heads to the U.S. Senate.
Among the provisions in the Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act include increasing pay for wildland firefighters, assisting people and businesses harmed by the Hermits Peak Fire, making it easier for tribes to access federal funding for water infrastructure, addressing the drying of the Rio Grande and sharing water data in order to inform policies and decisions. While the total amount the package will cost has not been calculated, it does include large spending items like $500 million for the Colorado River to prevent Lake Mead and Lake Powell from declining to critically low water levels and $1.6 billion for firefighter pay. The package is not an appropriations bill. Instead, it is an authorization bill. During debate on Friday, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Colorado, said that if this package is not passed wildland firefighters will see a decrease in pay because the funding that increased their pay that was authorized in last year’s infrastructure package was only temporary.
As Rio Grande water dwindles to a mere trickle in the Albuquerque area for the first time since the early 1980s, irrigators are facing the possibility that only the Pueblos will be able to draw water from the river. A 1928 agreement means that Pueblo water rights are considered “prior and paramount.” That means the six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos will be able to take water from the river when other users are cut off. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District has now used all of the available San Juan-Chama water it had in storage. That means it is relying on the baseflow of the river and on water from monsoon events.
Because of the Rio Grande Compact, MRGCD is only able to store San Juan-Chama water, meaning water pumped from the San Juan River, which is part of the Colorado River Basin, to the Rio Chama, which flows into the Rio Grande. A stream gauge that measures the Rio Grande’s flow near Alameda shows it flowing at 18 cubic feet per second as of Tuesday.
One of the three investor-owned utilities in New Mexico appealed the state’s community solar rule to the state Supreme Court and asked the court to delay implementation until after it rules on the appeal. Southwestern Public Service Company, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy, says the current rules adopted on March 30—one day before the legislatively-designated deadline— by the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission could put utility customers at risk and harm the company’s image. Community solar essentially allows people who live in apartments or who cannot afford to purchase solar panels for their house to subscribe to receive some or all of their electricity from an array. The Community Solar Act specified that 30 percent of the electricity from community solar projects must be available for low-income households and organizations. “We appreciate that the commission has devoted a significant amount of time and attention to the development of its Community Solar rule,” Wes Reeves, an Xcel Energy spokesman said in an emailed statement.
Dead and dying piñon trees dot the slopes of northwest New Mexico, particularly in an area north of Cuba. For the past few years, the State Forestry Department has been monitoring the die off. John Formby, a forest health specialist with the State Forestry Department, said bark beetles have been infesting trees that are already weakened by drought conditions. The State Forestry Department and the U.S. Forest Service conduct aerial surveys in the summer. Last year, Formby said, they did a special aerial survey of the Cuba area.
Biodiversity advocates say a court decision that reverses policies instituted under former President Donald Trump that weakened the Endangered Species Act is a bright spot amid recent legal decisions and will help thousands of plants and animals. Last week a federal court vacated the policies which, Joe Bushyhead, WildEarth Guardians’ Endangered Species Policy Advocate, said means the wildlife agencies will use the regulations that were in place before Trump repealed them to guide decisions. This, he said, could have impacts on decisions like designating critical habitat for the lesser prairie chicken and for federal oil and gas leasing that could impact the bird. The court ruling will also help species that he described as “in the queue” for threatened species designation. He gave the example of the Peñasco least chipmunk and the Sacramento Mountain checkerspot butterfly.