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TUES: Albuquerque balloon fiesta seeks waiver of FAA tracking rule, + more

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The federal aviation administration now requires any aircraft using a certain airspace, including most of Albuquerque's skies, to be equipped with special tracking technology. The problem is balloons don't have it, and federal regulators have not provided standards for how they should be incorporated.

Albuquerque balloon fiesta seeks waiver of FAA tracking rule - Associated Press

Organizers of Albuquerque's international balloon fiesta are seeking a waiver from federal aviation officials, saying a requirement that aircraft have specific tracking technology could affect the annual event.

The Federal Aviation Administration rule affects most of the airspace above New Mexico's largest city. The agency granted a waiver for last year's fiesta, and event officials tell the Albuquerque Journal they are seeking a similar exemption for this year's 50th anniversary celebration.

Balloonists say the rule remains a problem as it prevents passengers from getting expansive views from higher flights and bars pilots from more scenic locations such as the Rio Grande.

"This will be terminal to the industry, the sport and (the) culture that Albuquerque has been made world-famous for," said Scott Appelman, founder and president of the 39-year-old Rainbow Ryders ballooning company.

Appelman said balloons don't have the tracking technology, nor have federal regulators provided standards for how to incorporate it.

Murray Conrad, the owner of World Balloon, said he is still able to use his launch site on the city's west side as long as crews determine the winds will not blow them eastward into the more regulated airspace and as long as their balloons go no higher than about 2,000 feet off the ground.

"People have always seen balloons flying over Albuquerque and over downtown, and those days are done with this new regulation," Conrad said.

Appelman's company did $10 million in sales across three states last year, employs 80 people and is the biggest operation of its kind in the United States. He said Rainbow Ryders typically provides about 25,000 rides per year in Albuquerque, with the majority of passengers being tourists.

Appelman has emailed New Mexico's two U.S. senators and sought help from local and state officials, but so far there are no solutions.

"If we don't get this corrected, I could see us having to look at, quite frankly, laying people off," he said.

Appelman said he has not seen the new FAA rule enforced in other states where he operates and, in Colorado Springs, specifically, air traffic control operators and the local ballooning community have worked out terms for their continued operations in the affected airspace.

The federal rule requiring "automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast" equipment inside certain airspaces took effect in 2020. Appelman said it was not enforced actively until September 2021.

The surveillance technology is different from the transponders that balloonists can install temporarily so they can be seen on radar by Air Traffic Control. Under the rule, it must be permanently integrated into an aircraft's onboard electrical system.

Balloonists note that their aircraft don't have permanent electrical systems.

Fiesta officials have been told they would get a waiver for the 2022 event, but operations manager Sam Parks said the rule still makes flying harder for both Albuquerque-based ballooning companies and the recreational pilots who operate year-round.

Companies face penalties for well violations in New Mexico - Associated Press

State oil and gas regulators have issued notices to two companies for violating their permits for wastewater injection wells in southeastern New Mexico.

The Oil Conservation Division said Tuesday that the civil penalties include more than $2 million against XTO Permian Operating for violations at four wells and $7,200 against Mewbourne Oil Company for violations at one well.

The state updated its guidelines for disposal wells in November following an increase in seismic activity in parts of the Permian Basin that was believed to be associated with injection wells for wastewater and other fluids generated during oil and gas production.

The guidelines included immediate response protocols for operators to follow, including reporting and operational requirements. The guidelines also detailed the next steps the Oil Conservation Division would take if seismic activity continues in the area.

During a review of all disposal wells in the area, division staff found that permit conditions at four wells operated by XTO and one well operated by Mewbourne were out of compliance. Violations included failure to test equipment, measure well pressure and submit required documents.

The companies have the option of entering into negotiations with the division. If a resolution isn't reached, a hearing will be held.
Ex-Las Vegas school guard pleads guilty to student sex abuse - Associated Press

A former Las Vegas, New Mexico, school security guard has pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a female student.

The Las Vegas Optic reports 53-year-old Abran Ulibarri pleaded guilty Monday to criminal sexual penetration of a minor, three counts of false imprisonment, criminal solicitation to commit tampering with evidence and bribery of a witness.

Attorney General Hector Balderas announced the agreement, commending the 14-year-old victim for coming forward.

Las Vegas police initially investigated the allegations but then the state took over.

An investigation by the Attorney General's Office found evidence that Ulibarri sexually abused the girl, a student at West Las Vegas Middle School, for months in 2019.

Investigators say Ulibarri texted with the victim using a code name and instructed her to delete texts from him. The victim said she started texting him back out of fear.

Ulibarri faces up to 10 years in prison along with being on the sex offender registry. A sentencing date has not been set.

An attorney for him declined to comment.

Albuquerque police search for suspect in violent crime spree - Associated Press

Albuquerque police say a man accused of a trail of crimes including home invasions, car jackings and three kidnappings remains on the loose.

Authorities say the suspect, who they have not identified, went on a crime spree beginning late Sunday night near Elm Street and Thaxton Avenue.

Officers responded to a home that had been burglarized and determined a woman and her car had been taken.

Two hours later another homeowner heard gunfire in the home along with a man yelling. The family in the house took shelter upstairs. Police found the woman who had previously been abducted and the family's car gone. The woman told investigators the suspect drove her car until it ran out of gas.

Bernalillo County sheriff's deputies then reported being flagged down on the road by two women who reported being kidnapped from a gas station. They said a man fired a round and then forced them to get into their car with him. He later made them get out of the car.

Police believe the suspect then broke into a third home shortly before 3:30 a.m. He allegedly injured the homeowner and then took off in their car. Responding officers found one of the stolen cars.

The suspect was last seen Monday morning driving a silver Toyota Prius the wrong way on Interstate-40 before exiting near Coors Boulevard. Police in pursuit lost sight of the car.

The man is described as Hispanic, 5-feet-8 and around 200 pounds.

Haaland: 16 tribal water settlements will get $1.7 billion - Associated Press

The Biden administration will use $1.7 billion from the recently enacted federal infrastructure bill to fund 16 tribal water rights settlements, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced Tuesday.

The money will ensure that tribes get access to water they've been promised but have been unable to use because of a lack of funding for infrastructure to store and move it.

"I am grateful that tribes, some of whom have been waiting for this funding for decades, are finally getting the resources they are owed," Haaland said in a statement during a trip to Arizona, where she announced the funding.

Access to reliable, clean water and basic sanitation facilities on tribal lands remains a challenge for hundreds of thousands of people. The funding for settlements is part of about $11 billion from the infrastructure law headed to Indian Country to expand broadband coverage, fix roads and provide basic needs like running water.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1908 that tribes have rights to as much water as they need to establish a permanent homeland, and those rights stretch back at least as long as any given reservation has existed. As a result, tribal water rights often are more senior to others in the West, where competition over the scarce resource is fierce.

Litigation can be expensive and drawn-out, which is why many tribes have turned to settlements. The negotiations generally involve tribes, states, cities, private water users, local water districts and others and can take years if not decades to hash out.

Nearly 40 water rights settlements have been reached with tribes, some of which include more than one tribe. The Interior Department said 31 of the settlements are eligible for funds from the infrastructure bill. Altogether, the infrastructure bill included $2.5 billion for water rights settlements in the coming years.

The settlements receiving funding this year are: Aamodt Litigation Settlement (Pueblos of San Ildefonso, Nambe, Pojoaque, and Tesuque), Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Crow Nation, Gila River Indian Community, Navajo-Utah Water Rights Settlement and Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, San Carlos Apache Nation, Tohono O'odham Nation, and White Mountain Apache Tribe.

Last week, a group of Democratic senators from Western states wrote a letter calling on Senate leaders to include $616 million for drought and agricultural assistance in an upcoming appropriations bill. The senators from California, Oregon and Arizona noted that Colorado River flows are expected to continue to decline in coming decades, threatening a crucial water resource for seven states.

Santa Fe Public Schools to unmask after spring break - KUNM News 

Santa Fe Public Schools has announced that it will maintain its mask mandate until Spring Break as the state drops the requirement.

According to a statement released Monday, masks will become optional when students return to school on March 21. This comes as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced an end to the state’s mandate Friday.

Superintendent Larry Chavez says results from a district survey showed most community members preferred the mask mandate stay in place for the rest of the year, or at least until spring break, rather than be lifted immediately.

Chavez said in the statement that the district supports parents in choosing to send their children to school with masks once the mandate is lifted if they believe it’s in their child's best interests.

Pastor, teacher from Vegas held as child sex case fugitive — Associated Press

A church pastor and former elementary school teacher from Las Vegas has been arrested in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on a warrant accusing him of sex crimes involving children.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that Reynaldo Crespin, 59, was arrested Saturday after a tip from a woman who said he was staying with her relative. He was booked into the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center pending an extradition hearing and his transfer in custody to Nevada.

Court records in Las Vegas show that Crespin was named in a warrant issued Feb. 10 on multiple charges including sexual assault against children under ages 16 and 14, and lewdness.

KLAS-TV in Las Vegas reported Crespin was a second-grade teacher from 2016 until this month and a pastor at New Horizon Christian Church in northeast Las Vegas.

The television station said none of the charges related to his students at Hickey Elementary School, where Crespin taught.

A telephone call to the church on Monday showed the number was disconnected.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that Crespin and his wife, Marivic Crespin, founded the church in 2002 and that court records showed Marivic Crespin filed a Family Court lawsuit seeking on Feb. 10 seeking custody of their three children.

Experts: 'Drastic changes' forecast for Rio Grande — Theresa Davis, Albuquerque Journal

Each spring, farmers cross their fingers for abundant Rio Grande flows that will sustain them through a hot summer.

Now, New Mexico water scientists have found that peak Rio Grande flows could arrive about a month earlier by the century's end.

The potential change could influence how the state manages its scarce water supplies, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist David Moeser said the research began by creating a model for what the Rio Grande "looked like before we got in the way."

"People look at the Rio Grande and there's a little bit of water, or no water, and they think that's just business as usual, but that is really not how the big river used to be," Moeser said.

Flows at the Colorado-New Mexico state line, for example, have declined sharply in the past century.

That decline is thanks to a precisely managed system of reservoirs and canals that divert water from the river for irrigation and municipal use.

About 75% of Rio Grande flows come from snowpack, while monsoon rains produce the rest.

The team used nearly 30 different climate datasets to show how rising greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures and changes in snowpack could influence when river flows will be at their peak each year.

"Once we superimpose climate change on top of what is already going on in the system, then there is the potential for (streamflow) to be much worse than what we're seeing from the original model," said hydrologist Shaleene Chavarria.

Majority streamflow volume in the Upper Rio Grande Basin could arrive about a month earlier by 2099 if global emissions continue to rise, the USGS study found.

"One month earlier means we are getting that water significantly prior to the growing season," Moeser said. "So, how are water managers going to hold on to that water in order to deliver it in a meaningful way to the people that need the water in our basin? This is a fairly striking result."

Predicting the precise volume of water in the river proved a murkier task.

But the team did find that the Rio Grande may not have as much water during monsoon season as in years past.

"A lot of the changes that we see in this basin are due to the changes in snow," Moeser said. "That's why we see such drastic changes moving forward."

___

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

Here’s how the oil and gas industry could help to save a nearly extinct bird in New MexicoAdrian Hedden, Carlsbad Current-Argus

Oil and gas companies could play a key role in saving a nearly-extinct native bird species in southeast New Mexico.

That’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a plan specific to extraction operators that would specify actions they could take to prevent impacts to lesser prairie chicken (LPC) habitat in eastern New Mexico and portions of West Texas.

The service last year proposed listing the prairie chicken as endangered in its southern distinct population segment (DPS), which is in New Mexico and West Texas, while the northern DPS in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and the northern Texas panhandle was proposed for a threatened listing.

Endangered listings unlock the strongest federal protection measures when a species’ extinction is viewed by the service as imminent while a threatened status means a species could soon become endangered.

Along with protecting bird populations, viewed to be as low as 1,500 in the chicken’s southern DPS, the Service is also tasked with setting aside lands that could be used as habitat for recovery.

That population was once believed to be in the millions across all five states.

To begin the work of recovering the bird to its former numbers, two habitat recovery plans were released by federal government: one tailored to the renewable energy sector last year and another published for the oil and gas industry Feb. 11, starting a 30-day public comment period.

If a company signs up for one of the plans, they will be called on to follow specific conservation measures and in response will be protected from future litigation.

That liability transfers to LPC Conservation, the firm that developed the plans and acts as their administrator.

Chief Executive Officer Wayne Walker said his company hopes to use the plans to set up conservation “strongholds” for the bird that would see privately-owned acreage set aside for the chicken’s recovery.

It’s been done before, but Walker said his vision involves seeking out specific lands ideal for bird habitat and adjacent to other strong holds.

“The service has got a very prescriptive guidance. That says this is what these birds needs. This kind of habitat, this scale, this many leks,” Walker said. “There’s not a lot of places that have that. There’s a real site scarcity for conserving this bird.”

A lek is a breeding group of animals, and used by conservationists as a measure of species' recovery.

To be able to do this, Walker said LPC Conservation approaches landowners and others them “market value” for their land to be used in conservation.

This differs from past efforts, he said, that targeted lands that were already available and unused, leading to smaller strongholds scattering across the bird’s range.

“Other programs have a lot of acreage on the scoreboard, but they’re spread out,” Walker said. “This bird needs thousands of acres of continuous acreage, not pockets of conservation.”

By paying more for the land, Walker said his plan will be more acceptable for owners like rancher or energy companies.

“The difference that we have is we’re trying to do the one thing no one has done in New Mexico or West Texas,” Walker said. “We’re trying to pay landowners a market value for the conservation strongholds exactly where the bird needs them to be.

“That changes the nature of the discussion to what is going to take from a market based approach.”

When a company joins on to the habitat plan, it will first assess operations in the habitat area, studying the impact of infrastructure like wells, pipelines or roads and submitting a report to the Service for certification.

Companies will purchase credits that will create incentives for them to avoid known habitat and limit impacts.

Walker said it was important to have a plan specific to the oil and gas industry as the main economic driver in southeast New Mexico and West Texas and an industry that could be most affected by conserving land from development.

“There’s a long and rich history with the lesser prairie chicken and the oil and gas industry,” he said. “There’s some strong feelings within that industry on how these programs have worked or not worked. We thought it was best to give the oil and gas industry a dedicated solution it can choose to use.”

Adam Riggsbee, founder of RiverBank Conservation – a “conservation bank” company in Austin, Texas that finances the land transactions and collaborated on the plan – said so far there are about 10,000 acres approved for conservation with 2,000 officially set aside.

On the Texas side of the southern DPS, Riggsbee said about 9,000 acres are conserved, and another 1,500 could soon be added.

Collaboration with the industry was crucial, he said, to make sure conservation can occur without disrupting economic development.

That will allow private industry, which owns lands needed, to join in the effort as a partner, Riggsbee said.

“That investment is both through dollars and land. The investment and industry can work in lockstep. The economy can continue hum along while giving the lesser prairie chicken a shot at recovery,” he said. “That’s what we want, sustainable development.

Amy Lueders, southwest regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the collaborative approach will bring conservation that is sustainable while continuing to support local industry.

“This plan will result in strategic conservation for the lesser prairie-chicken by offsetting impacts from enrolled oil and gas development,” she said. “Collaborations like this play a vital role in conserving imperiled species and their habitats while providing needed certainty to support development.”