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THURS: Albuquerque Officials To Search Former Boarding School Site, + More

Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press
In this July 1, 2021, file photo, a makeshift memorial for the dozens of Indigenous children who died more than a century ago while attending a boarding school that was once located nearby is growing under a tree at a public park in Albuquerque, N.M.

Work Aims To Uncover History Of Boarding School Burial Site - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Albuquerque city officials plan to use ground-penetrating radar as they research the history of a site where dozens of Native American boarding school students are believed to have been buried more than a century ago.

Orange flags also will be placed at the city park to signify the importance of the site as more permanent plans are worked out among city officials, Indigenous leaders and advocacy groups. Orange is the color used to symbolize the movement that is bringing more awareness to the troubled legacy of the boarding school system that sought to assimilate Indigenous youth into white society over many decades.

Indigenous activists became concerned earlier this year when a plaque memorializing the students from the former Albuquerque Indian School vanished. They established a makeshift memorial of flowers and other offerings and demanded an investigation.

The plaque's disappearance came as the U.S. government began a nationwide investigation into boarding schools, where reports of physical and sexual abuse were widespread and where children who died while attending the schools were often buried in unmarked graves. Part of the massive undertaking aims to determine how many children perished.

Recent discoveries of children's remains in Canada and the investigation in the U.S. have stirred strong emotions among tribal communities, including grief, anger, reflection and a deep desire for healing.

City officials acknowledged the intergenerational pain caused by federal boarding school policies. While it can't be undone, they said reconciliation is in order. Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller offered an apology on behalf of the city in a statement issued Wednesday.

"This is important because we have an opportunity to learn and understand from our collective history and make meaningful change," said Rebecca Riley, who is from the Acoma Pueblo and serves on the city's Commission on American Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. "We deserve to understand the truth, determine our steps forward, and owe the Native children and staff who never returned home to do better."

In the United States, the Indian Civilization Act of 1819 and other laws and policies were enacted to establish and support hundreds of Indian boarding schools. For over 150 years, children were taken from their communities and forced into boarding schools that focused on assimilation.

The Albuquerque Indian School was started in 1881 by the Presbyterian Church and came under federal control a few years later. The school closed in the 1980s, and the property was put into trust for New Mexico's 19 pueblos. The buildings eventually were torn down, and a tribal development corporation is working to make it a commercial hub.

The park is a couple of blocks away.

The Commission on American Indian and Alaska Native Affairs has recommended that the City Council pass a resolution acknowledging the history of the Albuquerque Indian School and its burial sites, with a pledge to work with Native American leaders and residents to ensure history is not forgotten.

Over the long term, the commission recommended that Albuquerque commit to funding health and community initiatives that directly impact the health and well-being of Native American residents affected by federal boarding school policies.

Another recommendation calls for working with Indigenous leaders to develop a curriculum on the history of the Albuquerque Indian School and Native Americans in New Mexico and the American Southwest.

According to the commission, disease and sickness contributed heavily to the cause of deaths among students and staff at the former school, and information regarding the number of people buried and their location at the city park is inconclusive.

The city said a public memorial event and additional meetings are planned over the coming weeks.

Haaland Says Petito Case A Reminder Of Missing Native Americans - By Matthew Daly, Associated Press

Speaking in personal terms, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said extensive news media coverage of the disappearance and death of 22-year-old Gabby Petito while on a cross-country trip should be a reminder of hundreds of Native American girls and women who are missing or murdered in the United States.

Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, said that her heart goes out to Petito's family, but that she also grieves for "so many Indigenous women'' whose families have endured similar heartache "for the last 500 years.''

The search for Petito generated a whirlwind of news coverage, especially on cable television, as well as a frenzy of online sleuthing, with tips, possible sightings and theories shared by the hundreds of thousands on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. The Florida woman, who disappeared while on a cross-country trip with her boyfriend, was found dead at the edge of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Authorities have determined she was a homicide victim.

A report prepared for the state of Wyoming  found that at least 710 Native Americans were reported missing between 2011 and late 2020. Between 2010 and 2019, the homicide rate per 100,000 for Indigenous people was 26.8, eight times higher than the homicide rate for white people, the report said.

Haaland, a member of the Pueblo Laguna tribe, said she has frequently seen Native American family members posting pictures on fences and the sides of buildings to help locate missing girls or women. When that happens, "you know I see my sisters,'' she told reporters Thursday at a news conference. "I see my mother. I see my aunties or my nieces or even my own child. So I feel that every woman and every person who is in this victimized place deserves attention and deserves to be cared about.''

A former New Mexico congresswoman, Haaland pushed for a law signed last year  to address the crisis of missing, murdered and trafficked Indigenous women. The law, known as Savanna's Act, is intended to help law enforcement track, solve and prevent crimes against Native Americans, especially women and girls.

The law is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake tribe who was abducted and killed in 2017 near Fargo, North Dakota. Greywind, 22, was pregnant, and her unborn baby was cut from her body. Her remains were found in the Red River.

Haaland said she sees her mission as interior secretary in part as a way to elevate attention on Native American issues.

"I feel like it's my job to lift up this issue as best I can. And hopefully, the folks who are writing the news, and broadcasting the news will understand that these women are also friends, neighbors, classmates and work colleagues,'' she said.

Haaland stressed that her comments were not intended to downplay the pain suffered by Petito's family.

"Anytime a woman faces assault, rape, murder, kidnapping — any of those things — it's very difficult and my heart goes out to any family who has to endure that type of pain,'' she said. "And so, of course, my heart goes out to the young woman who was found in Wyoming.''

Everyone deserves to feel safe in their communities, Haaland said, but "where I can make a difference in particular is in addressing the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples crisis, which has occurred since the beginning of colonization of Indigenous people on this continent for about the last 500 years and it continues.''

Haaland created a Missing & Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services earlier this year and has established a joint commission of national tribal leaders and experts, led by the Interior and Justice departments, to reduce violent crime against American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Haaland also ordered Interior to investigate its past oversight of Native American boarding schools that forced hundreds of thousands of children from their families and communities.

"The primary goal of this work is to share the truth of this dark chapter in our nation's history, so that we can begin to heal,'' Haaland said.

A written report is expected next year.

New Mexico Man Drives Off With His 4 Children After DisputeAssociated Press

The Navajo Division of Public Safety issued an Amber Alert on Thursday for four missing children in New Mexico.

Authorities said the children — ages 2, 5, 7 and 10 — allegedly were taken by their father after Navajo police responded to a domestic incident in Tsayatoh.

Police said the man drove off with the children in a vehicle that was later found abandoned and the five were believed to be traveling by foot.

Tsayatoh is located in a rural area of the Navajo Nation about 15 miles northwest of Gallup, N.M.

Oldest Human Footprints In North America Found In New Mexico - By Christina Larson, AP Science Writer

Fossilized footprints discovered in New Mexico indicate that early humans were walking across North America around 23,000 years ago, researchers reported Thursday.

The footprints were found in a dry lake bed in White Sands National Park, first spotted in 2009 by a park manager. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey recently analyzed seeds stuck in the footprints to determine their approximate age, ranging from around 22,800 and 21,130 years ago,

Most scientists believe ancient migration came by way of a now-submerged land bridge that connected Asia to Alaska. Based on various evidence — including stone tools, fossil bones and genetic analysis — other researchers have offered a range of possible dates for human arrival in the Americas, from 13,000 to 26,000 years ago or more.

The current study provides a more solid baseline for when humans definitely were in North America, although they could have arrived even earlier, the authors say. Fossil footprints are more indisputable and direct evidence than "cultural artifacts, modified bones, or other more conventional fossils," they wrote.

"What we present here is evidence of a firm time and location," they said.

Based on the size of the footprints, researchers believe that at least some were made by children and teenagers who lived during the last ice age.

The research was published Thursday in the journal  Science.

Earlier excavations in White Sands National Park have uncovered fossilized tracks left by a saber-toothed cat, dire wolf, Columbian mammoth and other ice age animals.

Insurance Premiums Fall As New Mexico Prepares New Subsidies - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Health care access is getting substantially less expensive for consumers on the state's health insurance exchange through a combination of federal pandemic relief, a growing pool of subscribers and — coming soon — proceeds from a new state tax, insurance regulators told a panel of legislators Thursday.

State lawmakers this year approved a tax increase on a wide range of health insurance premiums, starting on Jan. 1, 2022. That will help underwrite health-exchange insurance offerings for low- and moderate-income individuals along with employees at small businesses, starting in 2023.

Federal pandemic relief already has substantially reduced the cost to consumers of monthly insurance payments, with the average premium on the state exchange falling from $195 in late 2020 to $139 in 2021. Heavily discounted premiums were aggressively marketed during a six-month special enrollment period that ended on Aug. 15.

State health exchange CEO Jeffrey Bustamante and state insurance Superintendent Russell Toal briefed a panel of legislators Thursday on the shifting financial landscape for access to medical care.

Several legislators — Republican and Democratic — remained wary of the 2.75% tax increase on insurance policies, warning it may be passed on to businesses and consumers by health insurance companies with unintended consequences. Insurance officials say the major brunt of the tax increase will fall on managed care organizations that provide Medicaid insurance.

At the same time, state House Majority Floor Leader Javier Martínez of Albuquerque provided a full-throated endorsement of the initiative, saying it promises to help break the costly and brutal cycle of providing medical care to the poor through emergency room visits.

"This isn't to punish those of us with health insurance," Martinez said. "This is to ensure that those that don't have access can access health care. ... This is one of those rare moments when this Legislature has actually taken a leap of faith, a very well-informed and data-driven leap of faith."

Across New Mexico, about 214,000 residents remain uninsured among a statewide population of 2.1 million. About half of those uninsured residents qualify for assistance through Medicaid or subsidized insurance policies sold on the state exchange, Toal said.

Bustamante, who oversees New Mexico's beWellnm.com insurance exchange, said about 60,000 people are likely to exit Medicaid insurance next year as special federal pandemic provisions expire. Many are likely to seek out new insurance policies on the state exchange.

Under the Affordable Care Act, New Mexico cut the number of uninsured residents in half with the expansion of Medicaid.

Legislators have laid the groundwork to extend insurance further though financial subsidies and incentives, while shunning proposals to provide universal insurance through a state-run, single-payer system.

The state's increased tax on health insurance premiums is expected to generate about $280 million annually. More than half the money initially goes toward health exchange subsidies.

Toal said that federal pandemic aid has successfully lowered monthly insurance premiums. He said the state's new mission is to reduce other "out-of-pocket" insurance costs such as per-visit charges to physicians and "deductible" amounts that people must spend before insurance policies pay for some or all of claims.

"If you're a low-income family, you're faced with almost $8,000 worth of out-of-pocket costs for your insurance. You're not going to purchase that insurance," he said.

New Mexico Reduces Insurance Premiums On State Exchange - Associated Press

Health care access is getting substantially cheaper on the state's health insurance exchange though a combination of state tax proceeds, federal pandemic aid and a growing pool of subscribers.

An update on pandemic relief spending from the Legislature's budget and accountability office on Wednesday shows that the state's health exchange plans to use new federal pandemic relief funds to reduce monthly insurance payments in 2022.

It says the average premium on the exchange already fell from $195 in late 2020 to $139 in 2021.

About 45,000 residents of New Mexico rely on the exchange for individual and family health care needs, with federal and state subsidies directed at low- and moderate-income participants that account for a majority of the people enrolled.

A much greater portion of the state relies on Medicaid insurance for people living in poverty or on the cusp. Medicaid enrollment account includes more than 40% of New Mexico residents in a state of 2.1 million people and has expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic.

State health exchange CEO Jeffrey Bustamante and state insurance Superintendent Russell Toal are scheduled to brief lawmakers on health insurance trends on Thursday.

Lawmakers this year approved a 2.75% increase of surtax on insurance premiums, devoting a portion of the proceeds to lowering consumer costs on the state health insurance exchange. Opponents of the plan worry it may increase the financial burden on employer-backed health insurance plans.

Elementary School Student Reading, Math Proficiency Declines - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

The proficiency of New Mexico's elementary students in math and reading has dropped significantly amid the pandemic, with only 31% achieving it, according to a review of preliminary academic data made public Wednesday.

The drop in math and reading proficiency from 37% in the 2018-2019 school year, before the pandemic began, has prompted legislators to suggest that elementary students should spend longer hours in class or face a longer school year.

The report by legislative analysts presented to the powerful Legislative Finance Committee estimated that students lost between 10 and 60 days of learning time because of the coronavirus pandemic. Even before the pandemic, New Mexico students spent fewer school days than their counterparts in many other states. Some rural New Mexico schools have four-day school weeks.

Amid the pandemic, the state's students faced school closures, were absent more frequently, and many had limited access to online learning. 

Nonpartisan legislative policy researchers said in the report that about half of the state's school districts rejected funding for extra school days because of criticism from parents and staff. 

The extra school funding has been part of a yearslong effort by the Legislature to increase learning time for students while allowing communities the local control to accept or reject additional time in school for students. 

Some legislators said after the report was released that the state should consider mandating between 10 and 25 additional days to the school year. New Mexico students must be in school 180 days annually. But some schools get waivers allowing their students to spend as few 150 days if those days are proportionally longer.

"Maybe we need to do more mandates, take education more serious and have a sense of urgency," said Sen. Bill Tallman, a Democrat from Albuquerque. 

Others criticized longer school years for children, calling for more research and days off from school for Indigenous holidays important in many school districts.

"Assimilation in Indian country — that has been the purpose of (education) and adding on 25 days the calendar takes those kids out of my community 25 more days," said Jeremy Oyenque, director of Youth and Learning at Santa Clara Pueblo, an Indigenous tribe north of Santa Fe.

Oyenque told committee members on Tuesday that extended learning days often ignored tribal religious holidays — forcing students to choose between their culture and being marked as absent.

Mandating an increase in school days would most dramatically impact a small number of rural school districts that have four-day school weeks. They are allowed to cram more school hours into longer days to give students the shorter school week.

"Up in my district, there are quite a lot of schools that go four days. And I think they spend less time putting up their pencils and more time studying," said Rep. Jack Chatfield, a Republican from the northeastern community of Mosquero. "I would really encourage us to do a little bit of research as to how those schools with a four-day school (week) compare in their testing."

The legislative report suggests the drop in learning proficiency from 39% to 31% could be even worse than the preliminary data suggests because student testing was optional and likely drew students who had better access to school during the pandemic.

Also, some students who took the tests at home received help from parents and scored higher than they should have, the report said.

The testing is required by the federal government, but the New Mexico Public Education Department received a testing waiver because of the pandemic. Normally, 95% of the state's students must be tested, but the waiver allowed as little as 1% to be tested.

The testing cited in the report included around 80% of elementary students in grades that were tested, researchers said. White students were significantly overrepresented in the testing by around 2.5%.

Groups that had less access to remote learning during the pandemic — Native American students, students with disabilities, and low-income students — were underrepresented in the testing by between around 2.5% and around 9%.

Report: Pilot In Deadly Balloon Crash Had Drugs In System - Associated Press

A report from the Federal Aviation Administration shows the pilot of a hot air balloon that crashed in New Mexico in June had marijuana and cocaine in his system. 

Pilot Nicholas Meleski died along with his four passengers after the balloon descended in the sky above Albuquerque, hit power lines and crashed into a busy intersection. 

Meleski's family told Albuquerque station KOB-TV that they are evaluating a copy of the toxicology report and asking for privacy. 

The FAA did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the report. 

The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to rule on the cause of the June 26 crash. While the board hasn't provided much insight into why the balloon collided with power lines, a preliminary report issued in July detailed the moments leading up the crash as seen from surveillance video from surrounding businesses.

Witnesses also told investigators that the balloon's envelop separated from the basket after hitting the power lines and floated away. It was found a couple miles south of the crash site.

The passengers killed in the crash were Mary Martinez, her husband Martin and their friends Susan and John Montoya.

Martin Martinez worked for years as an Albuquerque police officer and later as an officer with the Albuquerque school district. Mary Martinez, a mother of two, was a volunteer and loved to help people. Susan Montoya was an assistant school principal and her husband worked with special education students.

Federal officials said the balloon crash was the deadliest recorded in New Mexico's history and the second deadliest in the U.S. since 2016. New Mexico is home to an annual international balloon fiesta that draws hundreds of pilots and tens of thousands of spectators from around the world every October.

New Mexico Races To Spend Federal Rental Assistance - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

State agencies spent federal pandemic aid at a furious pace during the month of August, channeling about $630 million in efforts to bolster unemployment reserves, provide emergency housing assistance and promote COVID-19 vaccination efforts, the Legislature's budget and accountability office said Wednesday.

An update on pandemic relief spending from the office shows that New Mexico agencies have pushed out more than half of their $10.5 billion share of federal relief tied to the pandemic.

Of the $6.3 billion spent so far, about 70% has gone toward unemployment benefits to prop up household income amid economic turmoil associated with COVID-19.

State finance officials are racing against a deadline at the end of September to distribute at least $104 million in federal rental assistance to residential landlords and tenants or risk forfeiting additional money to the program.

As of mid-September, the state had spent or assigned $51 million of that federal rental assistance. State finance officials are providing assurances that New Mexico will meet the deadline as it partners with courts to avoid housing disruptions.

New Mexico is among about a dozen states that still have a moratorium on evictions for people who cannot afford to pay rent.

Federal supplementary unemployment benefits of $300 a week expired in early September, but New Mexico is allowing a 13-week extension of standard benefit payments.

The federal government will pay for half of those extended benefits — as long as the state's unemployment rate exceeds 6.5%. The August unemployment rate was 7.2%, down from 7.6% in July.

Unemployment benefit-eligibility notices were sent to 11,000 state residents, but many already may have exhausted their benefits during the pandemic.

Full enrollment for a 13-week period would cost the state unemployment insurance trust $23.5 million. Ordinarily payroll taxes underwrite the trust.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has lifted the state's once-aggressive pandemic-related restrictions on gatherings and business operations, though masks are still required in public, indoor settings.

About 4,700 have died from COVID-19 across the state of 2.1 million residents. Nearly 250,000 cases have been diagnosed.

State health officials said during a briefing Wednesday that despite persistent high community transmission rates, COVID-19 cases appear to have plateaued and that hospitalizations are projected to decline in the coming weeks.

They also reported that 70% of New Mexicans 18 and older are now fully vaccinated. Deputy Health Secretary Laura Parajón called it "an incredible milestone."

The latest state data also shows that children ages 5 to 17 make up one-fifth of the state's new COVID-19 cases but that very few of those cases have resulted in hospitalizations. Vaccinations have yet to be approved for many within that age group.

In other financial developments, relief spending has been painstakingly slow when it comes to $200 million set aside from the state general fund for grants to small- and medium-sized businesses that can offset rent, lease or mortgage payments as they rehire staff.

New Mexico Finance Authority CEO Marquita Russel told legislators that about 17% of applications are declined because businesses are rehiring contract workers and not staff.

"We have only funded about $10 million outright," Russel said of applications to the grant program. "We have additional ones that we are currently working through."

New Push On To Expand Nuclear Radiation Compensation In US - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is renewing a push to expand a U.S. compensation program for people who were exposed to radiation following uranium mining and nuclear testing carried out during the Cold War. 

Advocates have been trying for years to bring awareness to the lingering effects of nuclear fallout surrounding the Trinity Site in southern New Mexico, where the U.S. military detonated the first atomic bomb, and on the Navajo Nation, where more than 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted over decades to support U.S. nuclear activities. 

Under legislation introduced Wednesday by U.S. Sens. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat from New Mexico, and Mike Crapo, a Republican from Idaho, other sites across the American West would be added to the list of places affected by fallout and radiation exposure. Eligibility also would be expanded to include certain workers in the industry after 1971, such as miners.

The legislation also would increase the amount of compensation someone can receive to $150,000 and provide coverage for additional forms of cancer. 

A multibillion-dollar defense spending package approved last year included an apology to New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and other states affected by radiation from nuclear testing, but no action was taken on legislation that sought to change and broaden the compensation program.

Advocates, including those who  testified before Congress earlier this year, say it's time to do so, especially because the existing provisions are set to expire next July. The legislation would extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, another 19 years.

Tina Cordova, a cancer survivor and co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, said she has been working on the legislation for months with other residents of places affected by radiation, from Indigenous communities in New Mexico to Gaum. 

"We put forth language to make certain the bill went far enough to help as many people as possible," she said. "This is a make-or-break time for all the downwinders and post-71 uranium workers that have been left out of the original RECA bill."

While efforts to expand the program have been years in the making, advocates say there is broader interest now because more people would stand to lose access to compensation funds if the law expires. They also acknowledge that some members of Congress might argue that there's not enough money to bankroll the proposal.

"We won't settle for that answer any longer. Imagine the insult added to our injury of such a statement," Cordova said. "There is always money when there's political will. This is a social, environmental and restorative justice issue that we, as a nation, can no longer look away from."

On the Navajo Nation, uranium mining has left a legacy of death, disease and environmental contamination. That includes the largest spill of radioactive material in the United States, when 94 million gallons of radioactive tailings and wastewater spewed onto tribal lands in the Church Rock area in western New Mexico in 1979. It happened just three months after the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, which got far more attention at the time. 

With hundreds of abandoned uranium mines and radioactive waste still to be cleaned up, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said residents of the nation's largest Indigenous reservation have been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation for years and have endured a wide range of illnesses as a result, with some dying prematurely. 

Nez called an expansion of the program and extension of the trust fund a matter of justice.

"We look forward to advocating for the advancement of this legislation and to encourage consideration of additional provisions that would advance the objectives of justice and fairness represented by this bill," he said.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández of New Mexico is helping lead the push in the House. House Republicans who are co-sponsoring include Reps. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico and Burgess Owens of Utah.

For Sen. Luján, the fight for compensation started in 2010 when he was a congressman.

"While there can never be a price placed on one's health or the life of a loved one, Congress has an opportunity to do right by all of those who sacrificed in service of our national security by strengthening RECA," he said in a statement.

Penitentiary Inmate Found Dead In Cell In Suspected Suicide - Associated Press

A 22-year-old inmate at the state penitentiary near Santa Fe has been found dead in his cell in a suspected suicide.

Matthew Culley of Santa Fe was serving time for tampering with evidence and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon when he died Monday, Corrections Department spokesman Eric Harrison said.

Culley had been connected to several violent incidents in the five years before his death, the  Santa Fe New Mexican  reported.

Culley was repeatedly sentenced to probation but was sent to prison in February after violating terms of probation in a 2017 case involving the stabbing of a store employee.

He had pleaded guilty in the 2017 case.

US Projections On Drought-Hit Colorado River Grow More Dire - Associated Press

The U.S. government released projections Wednesday that indicate an even more troubling outlook for a river that serves 40 million people in the American West. 

The Bureau of Reclamation recently declared the first-ever shortage on the Colorado River, which means Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will get less water than normal next year. By 2025, there's a 66% chance Lake Mead, a barometer for how much river water some states get, will reach a level where California would be in its second phase of cuts. The nation's most populated state has the most senior rights to river water. 

While the reservoir on the Nevada-Arizona border is key for those three lower Colorado River basin states, Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border is the guide for Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah in the upper basin. Smaller reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell have been releasing water into the massive lake so it can continue producing hydropower. But any bump from the releases that started this summer isn't factored into the five-year projections, the Bureau of Reclamation said.

The agency's projections show a 3% chance Lake Powell will hit a level where Glen Canyon Dam that holds it back cannot produce hydropower as early as July 2022 if the region has another dry winter. 

"The latest outlook for Lake Powell is troubling," Wayne Pullan, the bureau's director for the upper basin, said in a statement. "This highlights the importance of continuing to work collaboratively with the basin states, tribes and other partners toward solutions."

Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoirs in the U.S., largely rely on melted snow. They have been hard hit by persistent drought amid climate change, characterized by a warming and drying trend in the past 30 years.

Both have dipped to historic lows. The lakes had a combined capacity of 39% on Wednesday, down from 49% at this time last year, the Bureau of Reclamation said.

The seven states that rely on the Colorado River signed off on a drought plan in 2019 to help prop up the lakes by voluntarily contributing water. All agree more needs to be done and are discussing what will replace a set of guidelines for the river and the overlapping drought plan when they both expire in 2026. 

The federal government also has formed a working group.

The Bureau of Reclamation's five-year projections are meant to help water managers better plan for the future using the best available data, said Jacklynn Gould, who oversees the lower basin for the agency. Its August projections are what determine water deliveries to the states.

The agency says there's a 22% chance that Lake Mead will drop to an elevation of 1,000 feet above sea level in 2025. Federal officials have said water would become inaccessible to states downstream at 895 feet feet, often referred to as "dead pool."

The agency that supplies water to most people in Nevada has constructed "straws" to draw water from further down in Lake Mead as its levels fall.

Jury Seated For Arizona Murder Case Against US Airman - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Opening statements in the case of a U.S. Air Force airman charged in the shooting death of a Mennonite woman are scheduled to start Friday.

Mark Gooch, 22, faces up to life in prison if he is convicted of first-degree murder and other charges in the disappearance and death of Sasha Krause, 27.

Jury selection wrapped up late Wednesday after two days. The process was slowed by protections in place to keep jurors more socially distant during the pandemic. The court won't be in session Thursday.

Krause was gathering material for Sunday school in a Mennonite community in Farmington, New Mexico, when she disappeared in mid-January last year. A camper discovered Krause's body in a forest clearing outside Flagstaff, Arizona, more than a month later.

Krause's parents and members of her community in Farmington were in court Wednesday during jury selection. Fifteen jurors were picked, some of whom unknowingly are alternates and won't weigh in on the verdict.

Gooch was stationed at Luke Air Force Base in metropolitan Phoenix at the time. He told investigators he was near Farmington — about a seven-hour drive — when Krause went missing because he had been seeking out Mennonite churches for the fellowship. But he said he did not kidnap or kill her, according to a recording of the interview.

There is no indication that they knew each other. Krause moved to Farmington from Texas where she was a teacher. Gooch grew up in the Mennonite faith in Wisconsin but never officially joined the church, he told investigators. 

Prosecutor Ammon Barker will try to convince the jury that Gooch was motivated to kill Krause by a general disdain for Mennonites. A bullet taken from Krause's skull was fired from a .22-caliber rifle that Gooch owned, a state crime lab report showed.

Authorities said they tied Gooch to the crime using cellphone data, financial records and surveillance video. Gooch's attorney, Bruce Griffen, has said using cellphone data to determine location isn't scientifically sound. 

The trial began Tuesday in Coconino County Superior Court. It's scheduled to last three weeks. 

Navajo Nation Reports 52 More COVID-19 Cases, 5 More Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 52 more COVID-19 cases and five additional deaths.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 33,637 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago. The known death toll now is at 1,436.

Navajo officials are urging people to get vaccinated, wear masks while in public and minimize their travel. 

Based on cases from Sept. 3-16, the Navajo Department of Health issued an advisory for 36 communities due to uncontrolled spread of COVID-19.

Officials said all Navajo Nation executive branch employees will need to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of this month or 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.