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THURS: Advocates Say More Will Come to NM For Abortions, Afghan Refugees Are Arriving In NM, + More

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Advocates: More Will Come To New Mexico To Seek Abortions –Associated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a Texas law that bans most abortions will likely result in more people coming to New Mexico for the procedure, advocates said Thursday.

The state already was among the ones that pregnant people travel to because Albuquerque is home to one of only a few independent clinics in the country that perform abortions in the third trimester.

An Associated Press analysis in 2019 found that New Mexico’s share of abortions performed on women from out of state in recent years more than doubled to about 25%.

Officials with New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which helps women with lodging, transportation and other needs, said they already are experiencing an influx of women from elsewhere and are preparing for more in the next couple of weeks.

New Mexico earlier this year adopted legislation to overturn a dormant 1969 ban on most abortion procedures. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the measure in February, saying women have the right to make decisions about their bodies.

Had the old statute been left in place, New Mexico’s ban on most abortion procedures would have gone into effect if the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.

While there's no pressure so far for the Democrat-controlled Legislature to go further with abortion protections, Lujan Grisham's office said Thursday that the state supports reproductive health care decisions being made between women and their doctors, with no government interference.

“We do not and we will not stand for any attempts to criminalize or restrict health care access in New Mexico,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor's spokeswoman.

She added that “draconian laws in neighboring states” may increase the need for abortion services in New Mexico.

The Texas law bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, typically around six weeks. In a highly unusual twist, enforcement will be done by private citizens who can sue anyone they believe is violating the law.

Air Force: Afghan Refugees Start Arriving At New Mexico Base – Associated Press

Holloman Air Force Base officials said Afghan refugees have started arriving at the base in southern New Mexico.

A C-130J transport flew the first Afghans to Holloman from Philadelphia on Tuesday, base officials said Wednesday in a statement that did not specify how many refugees had arrived at the base.

The Defense Department previously said multiple military installations across the country would temporarily provide housing plus medical and other support for up to 50,000 Afghans.

Officials said the refugees came to the U.S. under the Special Immigrant Visa program and would undergo medical screening, including testing for the coronavirus, before arriving at the military bases.

The U.S. and its allies conducted a massive evacuation from Afghanistan after the Taliban seized control of most of the country as the U.S. withdrew support to the Afghan military.

Brig. Gen. Daniel Gabrielli, Task Force-Holloman commander, said base personnel “were able to receive our guests with open arms and ensure that they are treated with the utmost dignity and respect.”

The Alamogordo Daily News reported that Holloman officials were accepting donations of clothing, personal hygiene items and new tote and gym bags.

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Taking Steps To Combat COVID-19 – Associated Press

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta officials say they're canceling some parts of the event and will require guests to wear masks to enter the grounds and while in indoor areas and crowded outdoor settings to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity said Wednesday he didn’t believe that face mask requirements and other safety practices would affect attendance numbers for the Oct. 2-10 event.

“Masks have been a way of life that we’ve all been experiencing for the past year or more, so I think it’s one of those things that people are used to,” he said.

The music fiesta is being canceled this year due to close proximity of guests and the discovery center is being shelved because of its indoor nature featuring activities with multiple touchpoints, officials said.

Other steps being taken include providing cashless options to buy tickets, moving hospitality seating outdoors and increasing spacing between popular special-shape balloons inside the park, officials said.

The changes track federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and the current public health order issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, officials said.

FAA Bans Virgin Galactic Launches While Probing Branson Trip – Marcia Dunn, Associated Press

The Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday that Virgin Galactic cannot launch anyone into space again until an investigation is complete into a mishap that occurred during July's flight with founder Richard Branson.

The ban came as Virgin Galactic announced plans to launch three Italian researchers to the edge of space in a few weeks.

The FAA said the rocketship carrying Branson and five Virgin Galactic employees veered off course during its descent back to New Mexico on July 11. The deviation put the ship outside the air traffic control clearance area.

The FAA is overseeing the probe; it's responsible for protecting the public during commercial launches and reentries. Crew safety, on the other hand, is outside its jurisdiction. Virgin Galactic insisted Thursday that Branson and everyone else on board were never in any added danger.

“Virgin Galactic may not return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to flight until the FAA approves the final mishap investigation report or determines the issues related to the mishap do not affect public safety,” the FAA said in a statement.

Virgin Galactic acknowledged the space plane dropped below the protected airspace for one minute and 41 seconds. The spacecraft's free-flying portion of the up-and-down flight lasted about 15 minutes and reached an altitude of 53.5 miles.

Virgin Galactic said high-altitude wind caused the change in flight path and insisted the two pilots “responded appropriately.” In a statement, the company said the flight was “a safe and successful test flight that adhered to our flight procedures and training protocols.”

“At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory,” the company noted..

Branson ended up beating fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos — founder of Amazon as well as rocket company Blue Origin — into space by nine days. Bezos launched July 20 with three others from West Texas.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are vying to sell seats to tourists, scientists and anyone else looking to experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Virgin Galactic's rocketship is launched from an airplane, while Blue Origin's capsule is hoisted by a reusable New Shepard rocket.

Virgin Galactic is aiming for late September or early October for its next flight, with two Italian Air Force officers, an engineer for the National Research Council of Italy, Virgin Galactic's chief astronaut instructor and the rocketship's two pilots. It will be the company's first launch where researchers accompany their own experiments. The company plans to start flying ticket holders next year.

Blue Origin has yet to announce a date for its next passenger flight, other than to say it will be soon.

New Mexico Health Officials Keep Eye On Hospitalizations - Associated Press

New Mexico state health officials are keeping a wary watch over demands for hospital care as sustained delta variant infections strain medical resources.

In a Wednesday online briefing, health officials said that a majority of infections, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 statewide continue to be among the unvaccinated.

The state Department of Health reported a daily tally of 875 new cases statewide, with 11 additional deaths.

At the same time, a major medical provider reported progress toward its goal of universal vaccination among staff. Presbyterian Healthcare Services said at least 97% of its workforce of roughly 13,000 is now vaccinated or has met medical or religious exemptions.

The state is striving to expand surveillance testing among school-age populations to ensure that outbreaks don't go undetected.

State Epidemiologist Christine Ross highlighted a troublesome trend of lower vaccination rates among Hispanic youths when compared with other racial and ethnic groups and the general population. Nearly 50% of the state identified itself as Hispanic on the 2020 census. 

There were 213 hospitalizations for virus infections for the week ending Monday. About 19% of hospitalized patients have died over the course of the pandemic in New Mexico.

The rates of hospitalization were highest in Quay County, to the east, and San Juan Count in northwestern New Mexico.

School District Fires Ex-Legislator Amid Corruption Probe - Associated Press

The Albuquerque school system has fired former state Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton from her nearly $80,000-a-year occupational education position amid a corruption investigation.

Williams Stapleton resigned her legislative position in July amid a criminal investigation into possible racketeering, money laundering, kickbacks and violations of a law governing the conduct of state lawmakers.

A lawyer for Albuquerque Public Schools, Luis Robles, said Tuesday that Williams Stapleton had been "discharged." He declined to elaborate.

Williams Stapleton's attorney, Ahmad Assed, did not immediately respond to a request Wednesday by The Associated Press for comment on her behalf.

The school district previously placed Williams Stapleton on leave after investigators searched her home.

Authorities are investigating Williams Stapleton's connections to a company that received more than $5 million in contracts to do business with the school district.

Williams Stapleton has not been criminally charged and Assed has said Williams Stapleton would cooperate with investigators and clear her name.

Robles said Williams Stapleton can appeal her termination from the school system.

The Bernalillo County Commission recently filled the House vacancy created by Williams Stapleton's resignation by appointing fellow Albuquerque Democrat Kay Bounkeua.

New Mexico Education Policy Director Resigns Over Remarks - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

An education policy expert is resigning her post at the New Mexico Legislature following a long-simmering controversy over remarks she made about Native American students in 2019.

Legislative Education Study Committee director Rachel Gudgel announced her resignation Wednesday, ending her tenure as a top nonpartisan adviser to lawmakers focused on education policy, where she earned around $130,000 per year.

"I have worked for the Legislature since 2005 and I love my job. However, the harassment and difficult work environment over the past three months has created an atmosphere that is just too challenging for me to continue to work in and be effective," she said in a statement.

The decision followed a year of disciplinary actions that included a temporary suspension, an apology and a $100,000 professional coach. In her apology to Native American leaders, she described her remarks as "insensitive." Native American advocacy groups and lawmakers later called for her resignation. 

Rep. Derrick Lente, of Sandia Pueblo, said that he gave Gudgel the benefit of the doubt, but found the comments were worse than he initially thought.

"I wanted her resignation, or I wanted her terminated. So I think for me, this shouldn't have taken so long," said Lente, who had voted for the education committee to fire her, believing she possessed an implicit bias that made it impossible to serve Native American students.

Around 10% of New Mexico school children are Indigenous, and the state has around two dozen Native American tribes with their own unique languages and cultures. They are plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit driving education policy in the legislature, in which a state court ruled that the state offers substandard education to Native American and other vulnerable children. 

Education committee members accepted the resignation and appointed deputy director Vanessa Hawker to lead the research efforts through the next legislative session, which will begin in January.

The education committee's chairman, who had voted in support of her staying on, said the members are ready to move on.

"We can now focus on our most pressing objective, which is to achieve the highest possible positive learning outcomes for every student in New Mexico. This is a goal every committee member is committed to, and I am confident that we remain united in working to achieve it," said Sen. Bill Soules of Doña Ana County.

Top New Mexico Lawmakers Concerned About Oil And Gas Rules - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A group of powerful New Mexico lawmakers is questioning whether state environment officials have done enough to weigh the potential economic effects of a proposal to cut smog-causing pollution across the oil and gas industry.

Leaders of the Legislative Finance Committee sent a letter last week to state Environment Secretary James Kenney, saying the rules would have an effect on state general funds and local government coffers if enacted.

"The potential economic and revenue impact to the state is a matter of great importance to the committee," the letter read.

A New Mexico Tax Research Institute study cited by the lawmakers puts annual revenue losses for the state and local governments at $730 million.

Another independent analysis by John Dunham & Associates — an economic research firm hired by the industry — found the rules would cost operators more than $3 billion to comply during the first year. More than one-third of currently operating oil wells and 87% of natural gas wells would become uneconomical after accounting for increased regulatory costs, according to that study.

Experts have said there would likely be declines in both oil and gas production in New Mexico, which is now ranked second in the U.S. when it comes to production.

The committee sent the Environment Department a series of questions about what was done to consider the economics of the rules and what other options there might be for small producers.

The state agency in a response issued Wednesday said it plans to present expert testimony on the methods and findings of the analysis done by John Dunham & Associates and that the state Environmental Improvement Board will consider testimony from the agency's own staff, the industry and other parties in the case during a hearing later this month.

Kenney wrote that this process will ensure that all aspects of the proposed rule and its effects on the state are fully developed and presented to the board. 

"The board will not rely on a single, deeply flawed economic study conducted and paid for by the regulated community, and I ask that Legislative Finance Committee not do so either," Kenney's letter states.

He also noted that New Mexico regulators have a duty to address rising ozone levels, which he blamed in part on oil and gas production. He said monitors in southeastern New Mexico — home to one of the world's most productive basins — are registering ozone levels in excess of federal standards.

If the state doesn't act, he said the federal government will force it to do so under provisions of the Clean Air Act.

The rules proposed by the Environment Department are part of a two-pronged approach, which Kenney has touted as the most comprehensive effort in the U.S. to tackle pollution blamed for exacerbating climate change. State oil and gas regulators adopted separate rules earlier this year to limit venting and flaring as a way to reduce methane pollution.

The Environment Department opted to remove all exemptions from an earlier version of its draft rule. The proposal also includes minimum requirements for operators to calculate their emissions and have them certificated by an engineer and to find and fix leaks on a monthly basis.

If companies violate the rules, they could be hit with notices of violation, orders to comply and possibly civil penalties.

The state expects the rule, once adopted sometime next year, to lead to reductions in ozone-causing pollution that would equal taking 8 million cars off the road every year. Methane emissions also would be reduced as a result, officials have said.

Navajo Nation Reports 49 New COVID-19 Cases And 1 More Death

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 49 new COVID-19 cases a nd one additional death.

It was the tribe's first reported coronavirus-related fatality in the last four days.

The latest numbers pushed the Navajo Nation's total to 32,650 cases since the pandemic began more than a year ago and 1,404 known deaths. 

Tribal President Jonathan Nez has said all Navajo Nation executive branch employees will need to be fully vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19 by the end of September or be required to submit to regular testing.

The new rules apply to full, part-time and temporary employees, including those working for tribal enterprises like utilities, shopping centers and casinos. 

Any worker who does not show proof of vaccination by Sept. 29 must be tested every two weeks or face discipline.

The tribe's reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Rainy Season Unleashes With Fury, Beauty In US Southwest - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

After two bone-dry years that sank the U.S. Southwest deeper into drought, this summer's rainy season unleashed with fury.

Monsoon storms have brought spectacular lightning shows, bounties of wildflowers and mushrooms, and record rainfall to the region's deserts. They've also brought destruction, flooding streets and homes, and leading to some swift water rescues and several deaths.

It's a remarkable reversal from 2019 and 2020, when the annual period known simply as "the monsoon" left the region parched. The seasonal weather pattern that runs from mid-June through September brings high hopes for rain, but the moisture isn't guaranteed. 

"That traumatized a lot of us here in the Southwest, really worried if the monsoon was broken," said Mike Crimmins, a climatologist at the University of Arizona. "And then here 2021 monsoon comes along, and it's almost like we're trying to make up for the last two seasons."

Tucson, in southern Arizona, marked its wettest July on record and its 16th wettest in August. The Phoenix airport is above average for the season by about an inch but is far from hitting the monsoon record for rainfall, the National Weather Service said. Some higher-elevation cities in metropolitan Phoenix fared better.

Payson has logged nearly a foot of rain so far — about 5 inches above normal. An area south of Flagstaff had hail that measured 2.5 inches in diameter, according to the weather service.

"That's usually something you see in the news across the Midwest in tornado season," said meteorologist Cindy Kobolb in Flagstaff. "Forecasters that have been here for decades can't even say the last time they've seen hailstones that big in the state."

Some locations like Window Rock, on the Navajo Nation, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, were just behind normal precipitation for the season and others well behind because of the hit-and-miss nature of the monsoon. 

The remnants of Tropical Storm Nora pushed moisture into the region this week. With each storm, officials warn of potential flooding dangers. At least 10 people have died in Arizona since the monsoon started this year, and at least four in New Mexico in flooding events.

Despite the abundant rainfall, the region is still trending toward hotter, drier weather because of climate change. All of Arizona is in some level of drought and most of New Mexico, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. 

"I'm really trying to enjoy it for what it is right now, because I don't think we'll see this every summer," Crimmins said.

The monsoon is characterized by a shift in wind patterns that pull moisture in from the tropical coast of Mexico. Many cities in Arizona and New Mexico get much of their annual rainfall during the monsoon. In a strong season, the moisture extends into southern Utah, Colorado and California, Crimmins said.

The downpours can replenish shallow aquifers and boost reservoirs temporarily. But the rain isn't a fix for drought-stricken lakes and rivers, like the Colorado River, anywhere in the U.S. West. Those systems rely primarily on melting snow and have been dwindling for more than two decades because of a megadrought.

The expected La Nina weather pattern this winter means snowpack in the West could be in short supply, forecasters say. That worries fire managers who have been battling increasingly more severe blazes, like those in California.

"The net effect of a robust monsoon is that it helps in the short-term but can set the Southwest up for an active and prolonged fire season for the following year or two," said Punky Moore, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service's Southwest Region.

The same vegetation that can fuel wildfires when it dries up also feeds insects, said Gene Hall, an entomologist at the University of Arizona. More butterflies, more moths and more pesky mosquitoes, he said. 

Some insects, such as the cockroach-like Palo Verde beetle, come out only during the monsoon to mate. Flying ants and termites gather by the hundreds or thousands to mate after monsoon rain, Hall said.

"Water is life in the desert, and we've had a lot of water," he said. "Everything seems to be doing pretty well."

Count mushrooms in. 

Christopher May of Scottsdale has found more than 100 varieties of fungi during trips to Arizona's mountains this summer, including some rare ones. With more rain, they're easier to find, sometimes cloaking the forest floor like coral reef in the sea, he said. 

"We have some of the best mushroom hunting in the country right now, maybe even the best," he said.

Anissa Doten has a love/hate relationship with the monsoon. She grew up in Tucson, watching the skies light up as thunderstorms rolled in and listening to the rain. It was her favorite kind of weather, magical almost, she said.

Her feelings are more complicated now that she lives in the shadow of a mountain that burned in 2019 in Flagstaff. The home she shares with her five children repeatedly has flooded this year, including during one storm that officials characterized as a "500-year" rain event.

Each time alerts go off on their phones, they rush to check weather gauges and scramble to ensure everyone is safe and someone is home to pump water and rebuild layers of sandbags.

"It's totally different anxiety-driven action mode," she said.

New Mexico Officials Warn Of Severe Weather, Flooding - Associated Press

Emergency management officials issued a severe weather warning Wednesday as widespread rain was reported across western New Mexico and throughout the Rio Grande Valley. 

Wind gusts of about 45 mph were reported as rain moved into the Albuquerque area on Wednesday afternoon. In southern New Mexico, flood advisories were issued for Carlsbad and other communities.

Authorities warned people to away from arroyos, drainage channels and flooded low-water crossings. 

"Our communities need to be prepared," said Bianca Ortiz Wertheim, head of the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. "If you can avoid driving during storms, please do so. And never attempt to cross flowing streams, as even a foot of running water can cause most vehicles to be carried away."

State officials described this year's summer rainy season as active, noting that 10 disaster declarations have been issued in the past three months due to flooding.

The forecast called for scattered to numerous thunderstorms developing during the afternoons and evenings Thursday through Saturday, with the threat of heavy rainfall persisting mostly in the southwest, central and east-central parts of the state.