Anyone who is paying attention to the Rio Grande’s drying riverbed and dropping reservoirs or is worried about declining groundwater levels probably has something to say about how the state might handle current—and coming—challenges. And they currently have their chance. The public comment period for New Mexico’s draft water plan ends next week. And while top state officials wouldn’t speak about the plan, New Mexico’s gubernatorial candidates were eager to share their thoughts about water, drought and water planning in the state. The draft plan released earlier this year by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission examines statewide water issues through the lens of 16 regional water plans the ISC developed with input from local governments, nonprofits and stakeholders.
Anyone who recently watched recent floodwaters rip down the Santa Fe River or the Rio Puerco—or had a skylight punctured by hail—might be tempted to declare that the annual monsoons ended New Mexico’s drought. But breaking the drought requires more than a handful of rainstorms—even big storms. And grappling with its impacts means policymakers should listen to scientists and constituents, ranging from farmers to city-dwellers. “Even though we got a lot of rain, and there’s great reporting on floods and great pictures on the internet, it’s a slow process to make up for what we’ve lost,” said New Mexico’s State Climatologist, David DuBois. The weekly New Mexico Drought Monitor, released Thursday, shows improvements in New Mexico, mainly in the eastern part of the state. But 99.9 percent of the state is still in drought, with 46 percent of the state experiencing exceptional or extreme drought conditions.
Tornillo, Texas, is a desert town east of El Paso, just 89 miles from Las Cruces. Fewer than 2,000 residents were recorded living there in the 2010 Census. But it hosts a port of entry across the U.S.-Mexico border—one that exposes the increasingly urgent moral battle over migration and human rights. Last week, the Trump administration announced a new facility at the port of entry to temporarily hold immigrant children separated from their parents. According to a story in the Texas Tribune, HHS is erecting tents in Tornillo for the children and teens.
On Wednesday, Gov. Susana Martinez and her energy secretary testified in Washington, D.C. that New Mexico is losing revenue from oil and gas drilling due to bureaucratic backlogs. Martinez and Ken McQueen, a former energy executive who now heads the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, testified before a House committee in support of four energy bills, including two proposed by Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM. Before running for Congress, Pearce owned and operated an oilfield services company. In November, he will face Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham in the race for New Mexico governor. In Martinez’s spoken remarks before the House Resources Committee, she criticized the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for its slow pace in approving drilling applications, blaming those delays on $2 million of lost revenues per day.
Elected officials will weigh in this week on key energy issues, both in Albuquerque and Washington D.C. What happens in those hearings and committee meetings might not grab headlines, but they affect landscapes, communities and the lives of all New Mexicans, whether they live close to oil and gas wells and coal mines, or hundreds of miles away. When private companies drill or mine on federal lands, they pay a percentage in royalties. Right now, that’s 12.5 percent for onshore coal, oil and gas, though an Obama-era rule—overturned last year—updated valuation rates to increase royalty collections. About half the money collected goes to the federal government and half to the state where the mining or drilling occurred. New Mexico currently receives more royalties from extraction on federal lands than any other state.
New Mexico’s next governor should be ready to confront the state’s critical water issues on his or her first day in office. That’s according to Mike Connor, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior during the Obama administration, who spoke at a water conference at the University of New Mexico on Thursday. The agenda looked ahead—past the six remaining months of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration—to what the next governor needs to understand about New Mexico’s water challenges, from drought and water transfers to interstream agreements, including on the Colorado River, whose waters seven U.S. states and Mexico share. Connor noted that on the Rio Grande, Elephant Butte Reservoir is 18 percent full, and said it could drop to less than five percent by the end of this year’s irrigation season. “The governor needs to have some policy initiatives ready to go as quickly as possible because there are going to be water issues that need to be addressed from the get-go,” he said.
On Wednesday, Gov. Susana Martinez signed the budget passed earlier this year by state legislators. But she refused to sign a bill that would have reinstated state tax credits for solar. That bill reinstated a tax credit that had expired after a decade, one that had spurred the deployment of 220 million BTUs per day of solar heating energy and 40 megawatts of solar electricity. The tax credit would have given people who install a solar thermal system or photovoltaic system at their home, business or farm a ten percent credit of the purchase and installation costs, up to $9,000. Previously, Martinez has praised the state’s “all of the above” energy resources, but by declining to sign the solar tax credit bill, she effectively vetoed it, but without having to explain why. This week, there’s an interesting water case before the Second District Court, over a private company’s plans to drill for groundwater in the Sandia Mountains.
New Mexico legislators tried to understand what’s happening with plans to divert water from the Gila River during a committee meeting earlier this week. While the Senate Conservation Committee will hear related bills later this session, they first requested an update on the project’s plans and a recently issued engineering contract. At its January meeting, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) approved the New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity’s request to issue a quarter-million dollars in contracts for the diversion project. One of those contracts, for $150,000, is for Occam Consulting Engineers, Inc.
That company is owned by Scott Verhines, who was appointed State Engineer by Gov. Susana Martinez in 2011. As an ISC member, Verhines voted in 2014 to move forward with the diversion rather than use federal money for conservation and efficiency projects in the region.
This week, the Trump administration announced it was imposing new tariffs on imported solar panels and modules—a move that will hit installation companies and consumers alike. But in the New Mexico State Legislature a trio of Democratic state representatives wants to give solar development in New Mexico a boost. House Bill 87 would give people who install a solar thermal system or photovoltaic system at their home, business or farm a ten percent credit of the purchase and installation costs, up to $9,000. If passed, the bill would authorize the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to pay out up to $5 million in tax credits for the year. The bill is sponsored by Reps.
Perceived political interference in the classroom made headlines this year, prompting harsh public reaction. In March, the Santa Fe Reporter’s Matt Grubs reported the head of the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) ignored a unanimous recommendation by a panel of math and science experts to implement the Next Generation Science Standards for four years. See all of our year-end stories
As Grubs wrote:
The sensitive parts of the standards are a tiny but politically charged sliver: human-caused climate change and the theory of evolution. Those have been the sticking points for NGSS adoption in other states that, like New Mexico, lean heavily on revenues from extractive industries. And they were the only academic topics raised by senators and representatives who questioned the new standards this spring in the Capitol.