WED: Workforce training initiative wins $6.4M in funding, A race to save fish as Rio Grande dries in Albuquerque, + More
Workforce training initiative wins $6.4M in funding - By Alice Fordham, KUNM News
An initiative designed to train a diverse workforce in northern New Mexico has been awarded a grant of more than $6 million dollars. The money comes from American Rescue Plan funding.
The cash will go to a regional project designed to train people and help them find jobs. It will be called the Northern New Mexico Workforce Integration Network and will focus on seven counties. The project is designed to help people who were once in prison, people recovering from substance use disorder and other underserved groups. The region covered has many low-income communities, and has been badly affected by the Calf Canyon Hermits Peak wildfire.
The Workforce Integration Network notes in a project proposal that healthcare and construction are industries set to grow in the region, but that employers report a labor shortage in those fields. So the plan is that the Santa Fe Community College and Regional Development Corporation will take the lead on training and apprenticeships and the network will use relationships with employers to help them find jobs.
The grant is part of a $500 million initiative called the Good Jobs Challenge, announced Wednesday by the Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. It is shared with 32 other workforce training partnerships around the country.
A race to save fish as Rio Grande dries, even in Albuquerque - By Brittany Peterson And Suman Naishadham Associated Press
On a recent, scorching afternoon in Albuquerque, off-road vehicles cruised up and down a stretch of dry riverbed where normally the Rio Grande flows. The drivers weren't thrill-seekers, but biologists hoping to save as many endangered fish as they could before the sun turned shrinking pools of water into dust.
For the first time in four decades, America's fifth-longest river went dry in Albuquerque last week. Habitat for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow — a shimmery, pinky-sized native fish — went with it. Although summer storms have made the river wet again, experts warn the drying this far north is a sign of an increasingly fragile water supply, and that current conservation measures may not be enough to save the minnow and still provide water to nearby farms, backyards and parks.
The minnow inhabits only about 7% of its historic range and has withstood a century of habitat loss as the nearly 1,900 mile-long river was dammed, diverted and channeled from Colorado to New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico. In 1994, the U.S. government listed it as endangered. Scientists, water managers and environmental groups have worked to keep the fish alive — as required by the Endangered Species Act — but the efforts haven't kept pace with demand for water and climate change.
Years of drought, scorching temperatures and an unpredictable monsoon season are zapping what's left of its habitat, leaving officials with little recourse but to hope for rain.
"They're adapted for a lot of conditions but not to figure this out," said Thomas Archdeacon, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in charge of a program to rescue the fish. "When you have flow one day and no flow the next for miles, they don't know how to get out of that."
When parts of the river dry out, officials use hand nets and seines to pull fish from warm puddles and relocate them to still-flowing sections of the river. The minnow's survival rate after being rescued is slim — just over 5% — due to the stress of warm, stagnant water and being forcibly relocated.
Still, leaving the fish in the pools is a certain death sentence, said Archdeacon. He and the other biologists drove over miles of dried riverbed to where the water picked up again — at the outflow of a sewage treatment plant. Only a handful of the 400 rescued fish would survive, with their best chance swimming through treated sewage.
Over the years, the government has bred and released large numbers of silvery minnows, but for the species to recover, it always comes down to habitat, officials say.
And few options remain to get significantly more water into the river.
"Climate change is coming at us so fast right now that it's outstripping those tools that we developed over the last few decades," said John Fleck, a water policy researcher at the University of New Mexico.
Historically, one way to send more water into the river has been to release it from upstream reservoirs. But this year, New Mexico has been unable to store extra water because of a downstream debt it owes Texas as part of a compact. Deep into the driest period the West has seen in 1,200 years, the river wasn't replenished by rainstorms that came in June.
"The timing and the placement of the storms weren't in the right place to keep the river flowing," said Dave Dubois, New Mexico's state climatologist.
To keep more water in the Rio Grande, the state and irrigation districts are offering to pay farmers to leave fields unplanted, but so far, few have opted in. In New Mexico, small-scale farming is the norm and many farmers water their fields with centuries-old earthen canals that run through their backyards, maintaining the land for cultural reasons, too.
By fallowing their fields, farmers would help save water for the minnow and alleviate the debt to Texas. But officials say that in one key district on the river, only 5% of land was left fallow this year.
"We need more people to do it," said Jason Casuga, chief engineer for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. But the program is just in its second year, and farmers want to grow crops, Casuga said.
For the past four years, Ron Moya has farmed about 50 acres of hay and produce near Albuquerque. A retired engineer, Moya said he answered a calling to work the same land that generations of his family had cultivated before him. Last year, Moya left 10 acres of his plot unplanted in exchange for several thousand dollars, but said he wouldn't do it this year — even though he was offered more money — because he wanted the moisture to keep the soil on his farm alive. Moya is skeptical that fallowing alone will achieve much.
"There's people whose livelihood depends on growing their hay. That's what they know. Can you imagine the whole valley being fallowed? That just seems silly," he said.
Nor is there much water to squeeze out of New Mexico's biggest city, Albuquerque. Like other Western metropoles, the city of roughly 563,000 has dramatically cut its per-capita water use, from about 250 gallons per day in 1994 to 119 gallons in 2019, according to data provided by the city's water utility. Albuquerque also uses groundwater and water from the Colorado River.
According to Mike Hamman, New Mexico's state water engineer, "the low hanging fruit has already been picked in Albuquerque, so now it gets a little harder."
EPA announces flights to look for methane in Permian Basin - By Michael Biesecker And Helen Wieffering Associated Press
The Environmental Protection Agency says it will conduct helicopter overflights to look for methane "super emitters" in the nation's largest oil and gas producing region.
EPA's Region 6 headquarters in Dallas, Texas, issued a news release about a new enforcement effort in the Permian Basin on Monday, saying the flights would occur within the next two weeks.
The announcement came four days after The Associated Press published an investigation that showed 533 oil and gas facilities in the region are emitting excessive amounts of methane and named the companies most responsible. Colorless and odorless, methane is a potent greenhouse gas that traps 83 times more heat in the atmosphere over a 20-year period than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.
EPA spokesman Tim Carroll said the timing of the agency's announcement was not related to AP's story and that similar overflights had been conducted in years past. EPA officials made no mention of an upcoming enforcement sweep in the Permian when interviewed by AP last month.
EPA Region 6 Administrator Earthea Nance said the Permian Basin accounts for 40 percent of our nation's oil supply and for years has released dangerous quantities methane and volatile organic compounds, contributing to climate change and poor air quality.
"The flyovers are vital to identifying which facilities are responsible for the bulk of these emissions and therefore where reductions are most urgently needed," Nance said, according to the agency's media release.
AP used 2021 data from the group Carbon Mapper to document massive amounts of methane venting into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations across the Permian, a 250-mile-wide bone-dry expanse along the Texas-New Mexico border that a billion years ago was the bottom of a shallow sea.
A partnership of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and academic researchers, Carbon Mapper used an airplane carrying an infrared spectrometer to detect and quantify the unique chemical fingerprint of methane in the atmosphere. Hundreds of sites were shown persistently spewing the gas across multiple overflights.
Last October, AP journalists visited more than two dozen sites flagged as persistent methane super emitters by Carbon Mapper with a FLIR infrared camera and recorded video of large plumes of hydrocarbon gas containing methane escaping from pipeline compressors, tank batteries, flare stacks and other production infrastructure. The Carbon Mapper data and the AP's camera work show many of the worst emitters are steadily charging the Earth's atmosphere with this extra gas.
Carbon Mapper identified the spewing sites only by their GPS coordinates. The AP then took the coordinates of the 533 "super-emitting" sites and cross-referenced them with state drilling permits, air quality permits, pipeline maps, land records and other public documents to piece together the corporations most likely responsible.
Just 10 companies owned at least 164 of those sites, according to an AP analysis of Carbon Mapper's data.
AP also compared the estimated rates at which the super emitting sites were observed gushing methane with the annual reports the companies are required to submit to EPA detailing their greenhouse gas emissions. AP found the EPA's database often fails to account for the true rate of emissions observed in the Permian.
The methane released by these companies will be disrupting the climate for decades, contributing to more heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and floods. There's now nearly three times as much methane in the air than there was before industrial times. The year 2021 saw the worst single increase ever.
EPA recently enacted restrictions on how much methane can be released from new oil and gas facilities. But proposed regulations on the hundreds of thousands of older sites responsible for the bulk of emissions are still under review. What are restricted under current federal regulations are toxic air pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and cancer-causing benzene that often accompany methane and are sometimes called "ridealong" gases.
EPA said this week it too would collect data from its airborne observations in the Permian and use the GPS locations to identify the facilities releasing excess emissions. The agency said it will initiate enforcement actions against the companies responsible that could include administrative enforcement actions and referrals to the Justice Department. EPA said companies found to be violating federal law could face significant financial penalties as well as future monitoring to verify corrective action was taken.
Jonathan Nez, Buu Nygren advance for Navajo presidency — Felicia Fonesca, Associated Press
Voters from the Navajo Nation will see familiar faces in the tribe's general election: their current president and a former vice presidential candidate, both of whom were on the ballot in 2018.
President Jonathan Nez and Buu Nygren garnered the most votes in Tuesday's primary among a field of 15. Whoever wins will oversee the largest Native American reservation in the U.S., and the second-highest tribal population.
Both have talked about the need for economic development and extending running water and electricity to the thousands of Navajos without it. Where they differ is on the approach to moving through the coronavirus pandemic.
The Navajo Nation once had one of the highest infection rates in the United States. Nez's administration enacted tough measures to slow the spread. Movie theaters, restaurants, casinos and gyms still aren't fully open yet, and a mask mandate remains.
Nez, a veteran politician, has defended the approach for keeping people safe. He said he would bring continuity in a second term, as the tribe works to spend more than $1 billion in federal virus relief funding that largely would address infrastructure.
"I think the Navajo people saw that we are able to handle a difficult situation," Nez, 47, told The Associated Press. "Not just coming from leadership but to rally the Navajo people to take care of our people, and they did an outstanding job."
Nygren was former President Joe Shirley Jr.'s running mate in 2018. The two lost to Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer.
Nygren left his job in construction management to seek the tribe's top elected post and contends Navajo businesses are hurting because of pandemic restrictions. He said the Navajo Nation hasn't been quick enough to respond to a huge loss of revenue from shuttered coal mines and coal-fired power plants and should capitalize on tourism. He has positioned himself as a diplomat who will bring a modern perspective to the presidency.
"It's very clear new leadership is wanted across the Navajo Nation," the 35-year-old told The Associated Press. "Just the amount of people who came to vote in a Navajo election where floods were happening, roads were terrible."
More than 47,501 Navajos cast ballots in the tribe's primary election — a nearly 39% turnout among more than 123,000 registered voters, according to unofficial results from the tribe's election office. The tribe generally sees a turnout of around 50%. The results won't be certified until after a challenge period.
Nez garnered more than 17,000 votes in the primary election, and Nygren got nearly 13,000 with all 110 precincts reporting, according to unofficial results. Rounding out the top five were attorney Justin Jones, former Navajo Attorney General Ethel Branch and Greg Bigman, chairman of the Diné College Board of Regents, who collectively received nearly 14,000 votes.
The reservation is bigger than 10 U.S. states, spanning 27,000 square miles of high desert, forests, wind-swept mesas and mountains bordering New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Its population of 406,000 is second to only the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
The slate of candidates agreed more jobs are needed on the reservation where unemployment hovers around 50%. Candidates pushed platforms that included finding ways to preserve the Navajo language and pressing the federal government to fulfill its duty to provide for public safety, health and education.
Supporters of the candidates set up tents across the Navajo Nation on Tuesday, offering fry bread and other food to voters as they made a final campaign push. Election day is a social event on the Navajo Nation, though some precautions were still in place because of the coronavirus pandemic. That included closing to the public the sports center in the tribal capital of Window Rock where election results are tallied.
The others candidates were educator Dolly Mason; scholar Leslie Tsosie; Chinle Chapter President Rosanna Jumbo-Fitch; Frankie Davis; former New Mexico state legislator Sandra Jeff; Emily Ellison; former Navajo Vice President Frank Dayish; Ts'ah Bii Kin Chapter manager Earl Sombrero; and Dineh Benally and Kevin Cody, both of whom sought the tribal presidency in 2018.
Ankle monitor GPS data ruling may be appealed— Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico
A fight between the local prosecutor and the state district court in Albuquerque over public access to the location data of people ordered to wear ankle monitors while awaiting their day in court may become a constitutional battle over the right to privacy.
Thirteenth Judicial District Court Judge James Noel ruled on Monday that the Second Judicial District Court violated the state’s public records law last year when it denied requests from Second Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez for GPS data of people on pretrial release wearing ankle monitors.
“While the Second Judicial District Court respects the analysis and decision in the Order issued on August 1, 2022, the Second Judicial District Court is evaluating its right to appeal,” Sidney Hill, a spokesperson for the court, said Tuesday.
Hill could not confirm whether the court will appeal the ruling to the New Mexico Court of Appeals. As of Tuesday, no appeal in the case had been filed.
“The Second Judicial District Court is committed to fully responding to all records requests that come in from the public and to diligently comply with the Inspection of Public Records Act,” Hill said. “The Court understands the importance of each public records request and takes each request seriously. The Court has at all times acted in good faith and will continue to do so.”
The Court argued that people awaiting trial who are ordered to wear an ankle monitor have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their GPS data. They pointed to three prior cases dealing with the Fourth Amendment right to privacy.
But Noel wrote that the protections in those cases “have not been extended to individuals on probation and parole” nor to “individuals on pretrial release.”
Noel wrote that since people on pretrial release are “unambiguously aware” that they will be tracked 24/7 by the ankle monitor, they do not have “a reasonable expectation of privacy as to their location.”
It is not clear if the defendants are ever made aware that their location data could be made available to the public rather than just police, prosecutors or other authorities in the criminal legal system.
At a news conference on Tuesday morning, Torrez said if the Court appeals the ruling he thinks the privacy argument will come back up again, and that hopes the state Attorney General “would be committed to seeing this appeal through to its conclusion.”
LOCATION DATA IS PUBLIC, JUDGE RULES
The Second Judicial District Court has its own GPS monitoring system called the Judicial Supervision and Diversion Program. It is separate from the GPS systems operated by the Probation and Parole Division and the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Torrez asked the Court for the GPS data for two defendants on April 30, 2021 and Nov. 12, 2021.
The court’s records custodian denied inspection of GPS records for both defendants saying they are confidential based on “constitutional rights of criminal defendants to a fair trial and presumption of innocence,” along with their right to privacy.
The Court argued that the GPS data “does not pertain to public actors” but rather relates to the location of “private citizens,” and therefore are not “public records” as defined by the Inspection of Public Records Act. Noel disagreed.
“That a record may contain information relating to the location of private citizens is not an exemption or exclusion from this definition,” Noel wrote.
New Mexico launches fund to train new police officers — Associated Press
New Mexico hopes to bolster the ranks of small law enforcement agencies around the state with a new fund that will be dedicated to helping with the costs of training and equipping new police officers.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other officials gathered Tuesday in Albuquerque to announce the fund. With an initial investment of $800,000 through the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, state officials estimate they will have enough to support training for 80 new officers.
New Mexico Department of Public Safety Secretary Jason Bowie acknowledged that law enforcement agencies across the state and elsewhere in the U.S. are struggling with recruiting and retaining officers.
"This effort to incentivize the recruitment of police officers aims to address head-on the shortfall in police officers and will serve to decrease crime in many cities across New Mexico, in turn increasing the quality of life for New Mexicans," he said in a statement.
Public safety is among the top issues in this year's gubernatorial campaign, as New Mexico has struggled with persistently high violent crime rates that have outpaced the national average for years.
Legislative analysts also have reported that New Mexico had fewer officers per capita than the national average at the beginning of last year and would need to hire more than 400 officers to reach the national rate.
Lujan Grisham, who is running for reelection, has been touting her efforts to boost pay for law enforcement. With the state flush with cash, the first-term Democrat won legislative support earlier this year for pay raises for state police officers and for the creation of a fund to provide periodic retention bonuses.
Her opponent, Republican Mark Ronchetti, has pointed to declining morale among police officers, saying they need more support to do their jobs. He also has said he would push for legislation to stiffen criminal penalties and make it easier to hold defendants in jail pending trial.
Lujan Grisham was unsuccessful in her push of legislation to address what many have described as a revolving door by detaining people charged with certain violent crimes until trial. Some Democrats in the Senate blocked the proposal, arguing that it would do little to reduce crime.
Justice Department details threats against election workers - By Marina Villeneuve Associated Press
A top official says the Justice Department has charged five people for making threats of violence against election workers amid a rising wave of harassment and intimidation tied to the 2020 presidential election. Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite tells a Senate committee that one charge has led to a conviction so far through a task force launched last year as reports of threats to election officials, workers and volunteers raised concerns about safety and the security of future elections. threatening messages directed at election workers since launching a task force a year ago. Overall, the department has investigated more than 1,000 harassing and threatening messages directed at election workers.
The U.S. Justice Department has charged five people for making threats of violence against election workers amid a rising wave of harassment and intimidation tied to the 2020 presidential election, a top official told U.S. senators Wednesday.
Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite said one charge has led to a conviction so far through a task force launched last year as reports of threats to election officials, workers and volunteers raised concerns about safety and the security of future elections.
Overall, the department has investigated more than 1,000 harassing and threatening messages directed at election workers. Roughly 100 of those have risen to the level of potential prosecution. Polite estimated at least three more people have been charged for such threats at the state level.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee that those numbers likely do not account for countless more incidents nationwide, including election workers accosted on the street, that are not referred to federal prosecutors.
"We have thousands and thousands of election workers all throughout our country, and yes there has been a rise in all kinds of threats," Hirono said. "So the thousand referrals sounds like a very small number."
Polite said the department has tried to encourage election staff to come forward with any kind of harassing or offensive communication. As an example of one case, he detailed the charge against a Texas man who threatened to kill government officials in Georgia after the 2020 election.
"He said he was threatening to end the lives of these traitors and take back our country by force, threatened to exterminate these people, and he threatened to put a bullet behind their ears," Polite said.
Polite said prosecutors have had to balance safeguarding free speech rights with the onslaught of troubling phone calls, emails and social media posts targeting election workers. The intimidation efforts have especially targeted election officials in the battleground states where Donald Trump contested his loss to President Joe Biden.
Michigan's secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, recalled for committee when dozens of protesters were outside her own home in December 2020, shouting "obscenities and graphic threats."
"As a result, there is an omnipresent feeling of anxiety and dread that permeates our daily lives and those of our families," said Benson, a Democrat.
She said too many election officials feel unsafe and fear for the safety of their colleagues and the security of future elections. State lawmakers have failed to set aside enough money for election security, she said.
"We are threatened with arrest for simply doing our jobs, for educating citizens about the right to vote. Or we are inundated with burdensome and often nonsensical, unnecessary demands for information and access to secure election equipment," Benson said.
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican who has had talks with Democrats about potential voting legislation, asked Polite if he supports increased penalties for people found guilty of threats against election workers. Tillis noted that he has received two voicemails in recent days from a man who threatened to kill him.
"Any leverage that we can gain in terms of increasing the potential deterrence value of charges of enforcement actions here is absolutely critical," Polite said.
A bipartisan bill in the Senate would double the federal penalties to up to two years in prison for those who threaten election workers, poll watchers, voters or candidates.
"Legal action is the last line of defense," said New Mexico's secretary of state, Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who spoke about receiving death threats during the 2020 election that forced her leave her home. "We will not stop such threats until the lies stop, the rhetoric gets racheted down and elected officials, the media, political parties and others find better ways to come together and educate the public about the realities of how elections are conducted."
Virgin Galactic planning an astronaut campus in New Mexico — Associated Press
Aerospace and space travel company Virgin Galactic announced Tuesday that it's planning to build an astronaut campus and training facility in southern New Mexico.
Company officials said in a statement that it has secured land for the facility outside Truth or Consequences near the location of Spaceport America.
They said the planned facility will include training facilities, accommodations, tailored experiences, an observatory, wellness center and dining option and it will only be available to future astronauts of Virgin Galactic and some of their guests.
There's no immediate word on when construction of the project will begin.
"I'm thrilled to welcome the next chapter of Virgin Galactic's continued investment in New Mexico," Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement Tuesday. "The new astronaut campus in Sierra County will spur further economic activity for New Mexico, creating more local jobs and attracting new visitors and spending to the area."
Last month, Virgin Galactic announced it had selected the Phoenix suburb of Mesa as the site where it will assemble its next class of rocket ships with the facility capable of producing up to six spaceships per year.
Officials said the Delta class suborbital spaceplanes will be designed to fly weekly, supporting the company's target of 400 flights annually from Spaceport America.
They said the first of the spaceships is expected to start payload flights in late 2025 with private astronaut flights in 2026.