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THURS: Key Reservoir May Match Record Low, State Begins Push To Improve Internet Access, + More

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press
Lake Mead on the Colorado River at Hoover Dam near Boulder City, Nev. The key reservoir on the Colorado River is expected to match its record low level on June 10, 2021.


Key Reservoir On Colorado River Expected To Match Record Low By Felicia Fonseca and Sam Metz, Associated Press

A key reservoir on the Colorado River is expected to dip to its record low Thursday in the latest showing of the drought's grip on the region.

The surface elevation of Lake Mead along the Nevada-Arizona border is projected to be at 1071.61 feet — a measure that was hit in 2016. It's the lowest level since Lake Mead was filled in the 1930s.

"We're expecting the reservoir to keep declining until November, then it should start to rebound," said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Patti Aaron.

The water level affects the recreation industry at what is one of the largest man-made reservoirs in the country and the efficiency of hydropower generation at Hoover Dam. 

It won't be used to determine next year's water deliveries to Arizona, California and Nevada until August when the Bureau of Reclamation issues an official projection. Already, the agency has said it's expected to declare the first-ever shortage declaration that prompts cuts in Arizona and Nevada.

"People are certainly concerned," Aaron said. "You look at the reservoir and it's concerning."

Lake Mead levels ebb and flow throughout the year depending on weather patterns and how much water is consumed or evaporates. Officials project the lake will fall to 1,064 feet before rebounding in November when agriculture needs decrease, Aaron said.

States, water districts and tribes have propped up Lake Mead over the years through various agreements to keep it from falling to a point where it could not deliver water downstream.

The Colorado River supplies 40 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming as well as a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry.

New Mexico Amends Rules To Prohibit Oil And Gas SpillsSanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

It will be unlawful for oil and natural gas drillers to spill liquid waste under revised rules adopted Thursday by New Mexico oil and gas regulators.

The unanimous vote by the state Oil Conservation Commission comes after the panel heard testimony from environmentalists, industry representatives and residents during a daylong hearing.

The changes stem from a joint proposal by the state's energy agency and the environmental group WildEarth Guardians.

Before now, New Mexico did not have a rule that expressly prohibited drillers from spilling oil, waste water from the drilling process or other liquids. Instead, companies were required to report spills and then work with the state to clean it up.

Industry representatives told the commission that leeway should be given to operators who sustain spills because of weather events, vandalism, equipment breakdowns and other things beyond their control.

Critics argued that the previous rules were inadequate and relied on an honor system that not all operators adhered to, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

Environmentalists during the hearing pointed to state data that showed there were roughly 12,000 spills and releases between 2010 and 2020.

Daniel Timmons of WildEarth Guardians said in a statement that the changes will provide incentive for companies to prevent spills from happening in the first place.

Eastern New Mexico Flooding Prompts Emergency DeclarationsAssociated Press

Severe flooding in eastern New Mexico has prompted Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to declare states of emergency in Lincoln and Chaves counties.

The governor issued her executive orders Wednesday, freeing up $1.5 million for the counties to use for repairs and to prevent more damage.

State officials say the flooding that began over the Memorial Day weekend continues to threaten public safety and critical infrastructure.

Local officials pointed to a levee near Roswell that was overwhelmed by heavy rain and storm runoff over the holiday weekend. They said the water had breached the levee in at least two locations.

The city of Roswell shared video footage of the flooding on social media following a tour last week. Residents also posted images and video of water flowing through neighborhoods and covering streets.

Officials in both counties said the emergency declarations will help to open avenues for relief for those affected by the flooding.

State Homeland Security and Emergency Management Secretary Bianca Ortiz-Wertheim said her agency has been working with local officials, the American Red Cross and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since last week.

"Despite this tragedy, our department has been inspired by the way these communities have come together to protect one another, propose solutions, and begin recovering from this disaster," she said.

New Mexico Again Offers Virus Relief To Immigrants, Elderly - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico officials are opening up applications next week for the second round of cash payments to residents who are ineligible for federal stimulus funds, including immigrants in the country without legal permission.

The application window for the $5 million program opens Monday, the Human Services Department announced Thursday, and closes June 25.

Applicants must be New Mexico residents who didn't qualify for the $1,400 federal stimulus checks.

Immigrants in the country illegally were among those who applied in the last round, often using their tax identification numbers and state driver's licenses to prove residency.

Others eligible for the money include elderly residents that can be claimed as dependents by caretakers and others excluded by IRS rules.

The department says it will prioritize the lowest-income applicants and may dole out less than the $750 authorized by the state legislature in order to help the most people with the highest need. Around 15,000 people received checks of about $465 each from a similar round of state funding in December, excluding around half of those who applied.

The New Mexico state legislature funds the program with an appropriation from federal pandemic relief funds. Cities like Albuquerque and Santa Fe have similarly aided residents ineligible for federal payments, using their own pandemic relief dollars.

State and local officials have also distributed billions of dollars in pandemic relief to businesses and individuals who are also eligible for direct federal relief payments.

2 Española Officers Fatally Shoot Man During Park EncounterAssociated Press

Two Española police officers fatally shot a man who allegedly used his vehicle to drag one of the officers during an encounter in a park, the New Mexico State Police said.

The officers drew their guns and shot Luis Nathan Leyba, 38, of Española, Tuesday night after he disregarded commands to stop, a State Police statement said.

A woman who was with Leyba was released from a hospital after treatment for minor injuries, the statement said.

The two officers were placed on administrative leave pending the State Police investigation into the incident.

Trial Begins In Rape, Killing Of 6-Year-Old In New MexicoAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Opening statements have started this week for a trial against a New Mexico man prosecutors say raped and killed 6-year-old Ariana "Jade" Romeo in August 2018.

Jade's mother, Stephanie Romeo, told a jury on Wednesday that she came home from a long night of work and climbed into the bed beside her daughter without realizing the girl was dead. Romero recounted that the following morning on Aug. 11 she tried to wake the girl up.

Court records show Ariana Romeo, who was mostly nude and bloodied, was cold to the touch, not breathing and wrapped tightly in a blanket. She also had multiple injuries to her body. The medical examiner's office ruled her death as homicide by strangulation.

The Rio Rancho Police Department responded to the home where an officer encountered a man, later identified as a suspect, Leland Hust, 24, leaving a room in the home. It is unclear what, if anything, Hust told police that day.

A criminal complaint revealed detectives later interviewed Hust on Aug. 23, where he told detectives he last saw Ariana Romeo on Aug. 10 when he put on a movie for her in her room. He denied having anything to do with her death. The complaint also said laboratory results from the New Mexico State Crime Lab matched Hust's DNA to DNA found from the girl's genital swabs.

Hust is charged with intentional child abuse resulting in death and rape of a child younger than 13, both first-degree felonies. Hust could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of either charge.

His attorney Michael Rosenfield told jurors that police botched the investigation and later coerced Hust into making incriminating statements by overstating the strength of DNA evidence implicating Hust, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

"This is a murky case based on insufficient investigation," Rosenfield said, noting during his opening statement that sloppy police work destroyed evidence at the scene that could have identified the killer.

Assistant District Attorney Jannette Mondragón argued that Hust was the only member in the home who could not be eliminated as a source of the DNA. She also said he was the last person to see her alive, a claim Rosenfield disputed.

Two Rio Rancho firefighters and the owner of the home, Brenda Scates, were also called to testify.

The trial is expected to last up to 10 days.

New Mexico Begins Push To Improve Spotty Internet Access - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico's top information technology official says a new $100 million state account for expanding access to high-speed internet is just a start and that investments of $1 billion are likely needed to modernize infrastructure, at a presentation to legislators on Thursday.

Information Technology Secretary John Salazar told a panel of state lawmakers that international consultant Deloitte is helping the state anticipate opportunities for federal grant money to improve internet access and data transfer rates.

"They're scoping out those grants," he said "We need to be up there, front and center, asking for the money."

Salazar said the consultant also looking at internet infrastructure programs in seven comparable states — including Colorado, Minnesota and Montana — for effective solutions. He says those states have some things in common with New Mexico in terms of geography and obligations to Native American communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic and a year-long pivot to online learning have exposed gaps in internet access across swaths of the state. Over 20% of students were left without internet at home at the start of the pandemic, and a state district court judge has directed the state to move quickly on improvements for pupils.

The Legislature and governor recently approved $133 million in spending to expand high-speed internet access during the coming fiscal year that starts July 1. They also called for the creation of a new state office dedicated to improving internet access, attached to the Department of Information Technology.

A nationwide search is underway for an administrator to guide New Mexico's expansion of high-speed internet, with an appointment expected in July.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham expanded the search for a state director of broadband internet after vetting six candidates and holding a pair of interviews.

Salazar said the governor's office also is studying accelerated formats for expanding high-speed internet with the help of a retired Boeing engineering executive.

A space race is underway to provide internet services from networks of tiny, low-orbit satellites or floating high-altitude dirigibles. The technologies from competitors including SpaceX and Sceye might help states save time and avoid massive investments in underground cables leading to sparsely populated areas.

Free Daycare Latest Virus Vaccine Perk Offered In New Mexico - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico's largest child care providers are offering free daycare for parents who are getting a COVID-19 vaccine before July 4, state officials announced Wednesday.

The child care offers cover dates of the vaccine appointments and in some cases, recovery time in ensuing days when parents might be feeling symptoms of a second dose.

The offer is part of the latest push to incentivize vaccine rollouts.

Earlier this month, New Mexico officials unveiled a $5 million sweepstakes for vaccinated adults, the largest such prize in the country. On Wednesday, they said there was a slight increase in vaccination registrations following the announcement of the cash prize.

Seven-day rolling average vaccination rates increased from 1,352 prior to the sweepstakes announcement to 1,437 daily registrations starting the first week of June, said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki, citing Department of Health statistics.

He said the slight uptick suggests it "may have contributed to a general flattening of, or even slight improvement upon, a recent downward trend in new registrations."

Companies have pitched in incentives as well, from free beer to free rides from ride-hailing apps.

KinderCare in Albuquerque says it is providing free child care days as part of a nationwide effort to encourage vaccinations announced by the White House last week in the run-up to July 4th.

"We don't want a lack of child care to stop your family from making an appointment to get vaccinated or from taking a family member in to get their COVID vaccine," KinderCare district manager Aaron Alaniz said.

The company's four locations in Albuquerque are participating in the vaccine promotion, mostly Monday through Friday.

Other child care centers like the La Petite Academy in Santa Fe and Albuquerque are participating also, according to the state's Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

YMCA locations in New Mexico and around the country are offering free child care, too, including for nonmembers.

"We've had people stopping in," said Valerie Culver, aquatics director at the YMCA of El Paso, Texas, which serves neighboring areas in southern New Mexico and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. "They just have to fill out a little bit of paperwork, drop their kid off, and go get the vaccine."

Biden's Oil Policies Highlight Rift In New Mexico Politics - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A small group of New Mexico lawmakers is supporting the Biden administration's pause and review of federal oil and gas lease sales, saying they are committed to moving away from the state's over-dependence on fossil fuels.

The group of 24 Democrats sent a letter Tuesday to the president and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. The lawmakers wrote that planning for economic diversification and reducing the volatility of the industry's boom-and-bust cycles on the state's budget is in the best interest of pursuing priorities such as education and health care.

They also took aim at federal royalties and rents, saying the system is outdated.

"As the state's appropriators, we have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that we are appropriately charging for the benefit of extracting resources from our public lands so that New Mexicans receive a fair and true market value for these resources," the letter read.

The letter-writing effort was spearheaded by state Sen. Carrie Hamblen, who leads the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce.

Democratic legislative leaders were not among those who signed on, and those who did represent urban districts far from the state's oil and gas patches.

The majority of New Mexico lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are walking a more conservative line given the industry's significant role in funding state government and its effects on those corners of the state where the industry supports tens of thousands of jobs.

House Republican Leader Rep. Jim Townsend called the letter irresponsible, saying it failed to offer any concrete plans to protect New Mexico jobs and state revenues.

Citing statistics that place the state at the bottom when it comes to educational outcomes and families living in poverty, Townsend said there has to be a plan for transitioning to other energy sources so the state isn't left in worse shape. He said ceasing oil and gas operations in New Mexico would only drive investments and jobs elsewhere.

"It just doesn't make any sense. There's no reason for this other than it's an ideological mantra of that party right now to say we're all against fossil fuels," he said.

Lujan Grisham warned in a letter to President Joe Biden in March that New Mexico could lose nearly three-quarters of $1 billion over the next few years if it sees even a modest reduction of oil and gas production because of the federal government's actions to curb leasing on public lands.

The governor has said that financial losses of that magnitude would affect her administration's ability to achieve goals like universal access to early childhood education.

Legislative analysts earlier this year noted that the recovery in oil prices and production accounted for about 75% of the increase in expected general fund dollars for the state.

"Our legislators' time is better spent figuring out ways to grow and expand our economy rather than chop away at its most successful parts," said Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.

McEntyre said development on federal lands alone accounts for $1.5 billion — or nearly 20% — of New Mexico's budget. The concern, he said, is the chilling effect Biden's policies will have on future investments and production and ultimately state revenue.

"As the industry and other parts of the economy recover from the devastating impacts of the pandemic, leasing bans and other regulatory hurdles only insure that New Mexico's rebound is uneven and inconsistent with the neighboring states who do not share our economic characteristics," he said.

Officials Push For National PFAS Drinking Water Standard - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Setting a national drinking water standard for what have been referred to as "forever chemicals" will be important in addressing contamination at military bases and communities throughout the U.S., witnesses said Wednesday during a congressional hearing.

New Mexico Environment Secretary Jim Kenney was among those who testified about the contamination, which is linked to a group of chemicals known as PFAS, an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

New Mexico is locked in a court battle with the federal government over the cleanup of toxic plumes from past firefighting activities at two U.S. Air Force bases.

While the case runs its course, the state is trying to determine the size and scope of the contamination so it can begin to formulate plans for cleaning up the chemicals, which have leached into nearby water sources. The work will take another year to complete, but officials have said samples already show levels that exceed the health advisory set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by significant amounts.

Kenney said he can't protect New Mexicans without a federal regulatory framework for the chemicals.

"The EPA drinking water health advisory from 2016 was a great start, but it's now 2021 and there's no regulatory certainty for states and our communities," he said. "No person should suffer the negative health effects of PFAS — not in New Mexico or elsewhere."

Similar contamination has been found at numerous sites around the U.S., prompting lawsuits by other states and water utilities.

While the EPA is considering setting a maximum level for PFAS in drinking water nationwide, in Congress, there are several pieces of legislation pending that would address the problem in different ways, from allocating more money for the federal government for cleanup to mandating regulation of PFAS compounds.

Kenney also advocated for classifying discarded PFAS as a hazardous waste so that states can better regulate the chemicals.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said the contamination is not just a public health concern but has put farmers out of business and has resulted in falling property values near contaminated sites.

A patchwork of regulatory schemes across various states isn't enough, he said.

"Bottom line is this: PFAS is a sinister and pervasive threat to our families' health, a drag on local, state and national economies, and a problem that will not go away on its own," he said. "We need strategic national policies."

An environmental official from West Virginia and a mother from Pennsylvania also testified about the effects of the contamination in their states.

Joanne Stanton, co-founder of the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water, told the senators about her son being diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor at the age 6. But it was only within the last several years that she learned drinking water in her community just north of Philadelphia had been contaminated for decades with PFAS.

That contamination has yet to be cleaned up, she said.

"It's the EPA's job to regulate chemicals, to set safe drinking water standards, and to hold polluters accountable — even when that polluter is the Department of Defense," she said. "And it's your job to hold EPA accountable when the agency fails to act. You all have the power to change the current course of history. You have the power to protect people like me, communities like mine."

Alert Warns Of Poor Air Quality Due To Smoke From Wildfires Associated Press

Residents of western and central New Mexico are being warned that air quality is being diminished by large amounts of smoke from wildfires in Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.

An air quality alert issued Wednesday by the National Weather Service said the reduced air quality likely would continue through the day and redevelop overnight into Thursday morning.

Cities in the alert area include Albuquerque and Gallup.

People who should stay indoors include those with conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease as well as people over age 65, young children and pregnant women, the advisory said.

It also said the reduced air quality means that people infected with COVID-19 could have more severe reactions.

The Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Program issued a similar health alert for Wednesday and much of Thursday.

Wildfires Smolder Across Dry, Drought-Stricken SouthwestAssociated Press

Firefighters gained a toehold Wednesday on a massive wildfire in Arizona, one of several burning across the Southwest in states facing dry heat and drought conditions.

The so-called Telegraph Fire burning south of Superior, about 60 miles east of Phoenix, went overnight from no containment to 21% contained, fire officials said in a news release.

More than 750 firefighters conducted burnout operations through the night to protect structures, including electric utilities and highway infrastructure. Overseen by the Southwest Type 1 Incident Management Team, crews will now focus on establishing a fire line along the Highway 60 corridor and in the Pinal Mountains.

The blaze, which has spread through Pinal and Gila counties, has burned more than 125 square miles.

Thousands of residents across Globe, Miami and smaller communities have been stuck in various stages of the evacuation process.

At least 2,500 homes in Gila County have been evacuated, Carl Melford, the county emergency manager, said Tuesday. He estimated that there were twice as many households in the "set" mode with bags packed just in case.

Meanwhile, in Pinal County, Superior residents remain in "set" mode while hundreds were evacuated from the community of Top-Of-The-World.

Among the properties destroyed was a second home near the Globe-Miami area that belonged to Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers.

The fire also forced closures on most highways leading out of town. However, US 70 between Globe and Fort Thomas reopened Wednesday.

The blaze was first reported Friday and is believed to be human-caused.

Firefighters on another wildfire several miles east made significant progress Wednesday with 33% containment. The so-called Mescal Fire southeast of Globe forced residents of three communities to evacuate. But around 150 residents from Soda Canyon and Coyote Flats communities were allowed to return home.

In New Mexico, crews also were fighting blazes, including one that was sparked by lightning three weeks ago in the Gila National Forest. It has charred more than 71 square miles and has forced the closure of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and much of the surrounding wilderness.

While fire restrictions have been in place for New Mexico's forests since earlier this spring, some cities recently opted for fireworks restrictions ahead of the July 4th holiday. They are citing elevated fire danger as hot and dry conditions persist across the region.

Residents in New Mexico's largest city woke up Wednesday to find Albuquerque once again shrouded in smoke from the fires in Arizona. The yellow haze stretched up the Rio Grande Valley and obscured views of the surrounding mountain ranges.

Utah, mired in extreme drought, was facing multiple wildfires Wednesday. The largest blaze is one that started Tuesday near the town of Price that was about 3 square miles as of Wednesday morning, according to the Utah fire information website run by state and federal agencies.

Gov. Spencer Cox said this was the state's worst drought in decades and announced a fireworks bans for all state lands and unincorporated private lands to reduce the risk of wildfires.

Man Accused Of Causing Delta Flight Diversion Ordered Held Associated Press

A man accused of trying to break into the cockpit of a Delta flight from Los Angeles to Nashville, causing its diversion last Friday to Albuquerque, has been ordered to remain in custody pending further hearings.

Asiel Christian Norton, 43, of Venice, California, made an initial appearance Tuesday in federal court in Albuquerque on a charge of interference with flight crew and attendants, according to court records and the U.S. Attorney's Office.

A criminal complaint submitted by an FBI agent said Norton during the flight pounded on the cockpit door and said "we need to land this plane" before he was restrained by a flight attendant and passengers and then carried to the rear of the plane.

The flight attendant, who was not identified, said Norton didn't appear to be intoxicated and wasn't served alcohol during the flight, the complaint said.

There was no reported injury.

Angelica Hall, a federal public defender assigned to represent Norton, did not immediately respond Wednesday to an emailed request for comment on the allegations.

If convicted, Norton could face up to 20 years in prison, the U.S. Attorney's Office said in a statement.

Nominee To Oversee Indigenous Affairs Has Widespread Support - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

President Joe Biden's nominee to oversee Indigenous affairs at the Interior Department said Wednesday he won't impede tribes as they seek to improve infrastructure, public safety and the economy on their lands.

Bryan Newland appeared before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, where he received widespread support to become assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. Tribes, too, have endorsed him as someone who is well-versed in the issues they face and as a tribal advocate.

Newland said the work will require collaboration across federal agencies, driven by tribes. He recounted how federal policies and laws impacted his childhood and his path to becoming chief judge in the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan and being elected tribal president.

"I know the first-hand connection between public service and the lives of others," he said. "When you live with the people you serve, you can't escape that connection."

If confirmed by the full Senate, Newland would be responsible for maintaining the political relationship that 574 federally recognized tribes have with the federal government. Leaders of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Office of Indian Gaming and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education would report to him.

Newland currently serves as principal deputy assistant secretary at the Interior Department and served in the agency during the Obama administration. In the new role, he would advise Secretary Deb Haaland broadly on tribes. 

Senators asked Newland to ensure the Interior Department would respond with urgency to an epidemic of missing and slain Native Americans, preserve tribes' rights to develop oil and gas, expand broadband, help seek funding for tribal water settlements and keep in mind that not all Indigenous groups are similar in structure, culture and economics, including Native Hawaiians.

"The job is not an easy one," said Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the vice-chair of the committee.

Some tribes have been frustrated over the years at the lack of funding for tribal police and the dozens of Bureau of Indian Education schools that are among the worst-performing in the nation, along with the bureaucracy in getting home or road improvements on reservations.

Newland said the Interior Department is starting to look at what could be the root of the police shortage, whether it be the challenges of the job or the pay. 

Tribes and tribal organizations overwhelmingly supported Newland's nomination, citing his experience, diplomacy and expertise in federal law regarding Native Americans. They called on the Senate to swiftly confirm him.

"At a time when America is reckoning with its past, Mr. Newland is the right person to meet this moment and deliver meaningful change for Indian Country," one letter read.