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WED: 9 dead in Texas crash involving a New Mexico university's golf teams, + More


9 dead in Texas crash involving U. of Southwest golf teams - By Cedar Attanasio, Jill Bleed And Anita Snow  Associated Press

Nine people have died in a fiery, head-on collision in West Texas, including six students and a coach from a New Mexico university who were returning home from a golf tournament, authorities said.

Those killed in the Tuesday evening crash included University of the Southwest students from Portugal and Mexico. Two Canadian students were hospitalized in critical condition

A pickup truck crossed the center line of a two-lane road in Andrews County, about 30 miles east of the New Mexico state line and crashed into a van carrying members of the university's men's and women's golf teams, said Sgt. Steven Blanco of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The agency later identified the deceased as: Golf coach Tyler James, 26, of Hobbs, New Mexico; and players Mauricio Sanchez, 19, of Mexico; Travis Garcia, 19, of Pleasanton, Texas; Jackson Zinn, 22, of Westminster, Colorado; Karisa Raines, 21, of Fort Stockton, Texas; Laci Stone, 18, of Nocona, Texas; and Tiago Sousa, 18, of Portugal.

Also killed were Henrich Siemans, 38, of Seminole County, Texas, and an unidentified 13-year-old boy who had been traveling with him in the 2007 Dodge 2500 pickup.

Critically injured aboard the van were Canadian students Dayton Price, 19, of Mississauga, Ontario, and Hayden Underhill, 20, of Amherstview. Ontario. Both were taken by helicopter to the University Medical Center in Lubbock, about 110 miles to the northeast.

The mother of freshman Laci Stone wrote of her loss on Facebook Wednesday.

"She has been an absolute ray of sunshine during this short time on earth," Chelsi Stone said in a post. "… We will never be the same after this and we just don't understand how this happened to our amazing, beautiful, smart, joyful girl."

Laci Stone graduated in 2021 from Nocona High School, where she played golf, volleyball and softball. She was majoring in global business management, according to her biography on the golf team's website.

Tyler James' mother, June James, said she knew little about the circumstances of the accident. He coached the men and the women.

"We don't know what happened. It's a huge investigation. We don't have any idea as of yet," James said during a brief phone interview. "This is kind of a shock."

Team member Jasmin Collum had been scheduled to play but at the last minute decided instead to visit her parents in Houston, her mother said.

"I told her God has a plan for her and that's why she's OK," Tonya Collum said. "We knew all those people on board. Basically the whole team is gone or in the hospital."

The National Transportation Safety Board was sending an investigative team to the crash site Wednesday, spokesman Eric Weiss said.

The golf team was traveling in a 2017 Ford Transit van that was towing a box trailer when it collided with the truck, and both vehicles burst into flames, Weiss said. It happened on a two-lane asphalt highway where the speed limit is 75 mph, though investigators have not yet determined how fast either vehicle was traveling, he said.

The University of the Southwest is a private, Christian college located in Hobbs, New Mexico, near the state's border with Texas.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said on Facebook that she is "deeply saddened" by the loss of life.

"This is a terrible accident. As we await additional information from authorities, my prayers are with the community and the loved ones of all those involved," she said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also expressed sympathy.

"We grieve with the loved ones of the individuals whose lives were horrifically taken too soon in this fatal vehicle crash near Andrews last night," Abbott said.

The teams had been taking part in a golf tournament at Midland College, about 315 miles west of Dallas.

"We are still learning the details about the accident but we are devastated and deeply saddened to learn about the loss of our students' lives and their coach," University President Quint Thurman said in a statement.

The university said on Twitter that counseling and religious services would be available on campus.

Midland College, which hosted the golf tournament, said Wednesday's play would be canceled because of the crash. Eleven schools were participating in the event.

"All of the players and their coaches from the participating schools met together early this morning," Midland College athletic director Forrest Allen said in a statement Wednesday. "We were all shocked to learn of this tragedy, and our thoughts and prayers are with USW as they grieve this terrible loss."

Officials: Albuquerque balloon flights get FAA clearance - Associated Press

The Federal Aviation Administration will allow Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta flights this October without requiring balloonists to install new tracking equipment as required under a federal rule, FAA and city officials announced Wednesday.

"Today, our pilots are cleared for takeoff and we're ready to celebrate a half century of the Balloon Fiesta as planned," Mayor Tim Keller said in a statement.

The statement said balloonists can sign a letter of agreement developed by the FAA outlining safety requirements for navigating Albuquerque's airspace, "the majority of which are already best practices for most balloonists."

Meanwhile, the FAA will conduct research and consultations to reach a permanent solution by next March, the announcement said.

The agreement also covers year-round flights over Albuquerque.

"We recognize the important role that hot air ballooning plays in New Mexico's culture. The FAA has reached an agreement that enables balloon pilots to continue flying safely in the region while we work on a long-term solution," FAA Regional Administrator Rob Lowe. said in the announcement statement.

Keller, members of the New Mexico's congressional delegation and others had called on the FAA to waive the requirement for the technology.

State Dems exploring possibilities of an ‘extraordinary’ session, but no decision yetKSFR, Santa Fe New Mexican, KUNM News

Democrats in the state House and Senate met Tuesday night to decide on whether to call an extraordinary session of the legislature to override Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s veto of the junior bill, and it looks like a decision is just on the horizon.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports yesterday’s caucus meetings follow those held Friday after a decision wasn’t made. Democratic Sen. George Muñoz told the New Mexican that agreeing to convene the session remains possible.

Muñoz does not believe the state’s Democrats have consensus, but says he thinks about half are on board and that they could have the numbers if enough Republicans join the vote to convene the session. Several GOP lawmakers have signaled support for the override.

The initiative needs approval from three-fifths of the legislators in each chamber to move ahead.

As KSFR radio reports, House Speaker Brian Egolf said they are “getting very close to an agreement between the Senate and Executive Branch” and he’s confident that some projects ranging from uranium clean-up to domestic violence shelters will be back on track.

At issue is the $50 million outlay bill Lujan Grisham vetoed earlier this month, which included funding for a variety of projects approved by the legislature in their 30-day session amid record-high state income due to oil and gas revenue and federal pandemic aid.

The governor had argued that the bill circumvented a standard vetting process and could lead to waste.

Meanwhile, the governor herself could convene a special session for issues of her choosing. The New Mexican reports various lawmakers said Monday they heard that was possible in an effort to create relief amid rising gas prices.

Haaland: Report on Indigenous boarding schools expected soon - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

The Interior Department is on the verge of releasing a report on its investigation into the federal government's past oversight of Native American boarding schools.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told journalists during a call Wednesday that the report will come out in April but didn't specify a date. She first outlined the initiative in June, saying it would uncover the truth about the loss of life and the lasting consequences of boarding schools.

Starting with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the U.S. enacted laws and policies to establish and support Indian boarding schools across the nation. For over 150 years, Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced into these assimilation-focused schools.

Discoveries of the remains of more than 1,000 children in Canada renewed a spotlight in the U.S. and stirred strong emotions among tribal communities that included grief, anger, reflection and a deep desire for healing.

"We have been very cognizant of the fact that we need to create a safe space for people to share information and seek resources," Haaland said Wednesday. "We recognize this is a very traumatic experience for many people."

The Interior Department did not immediately respond to further questions from The Associated Press.

The work on boarding schools will include compiling and reviewing records to identify past schools, locate known and possible burial sites at or near those schools, and uncover the names and tribal affiliations of students, Haaland said.

Haaland made the remarks in highlighting the work she and others in the Interior Department have done since she took over the agency a year ago. Haaland, of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, is the first Native American ever to hold the post — raising the hopes of Indian Country for significant changes in an agency that has broad oversight of tribal affairs.

She summed up the work as impactful. She noted the administration's response to climate change, the coronavirus and to the need for improvements to roads, broadband and other infrastructure. Tribal leaders have welcomed infusions of funding but said those investments need to be sustained in the future.

Specifically for Native American tribes, Haaland pointed to the restoration of the original boundaries for Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah; a push to create a buffer around Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico to protect the area that's sacred to pueblo tribes from new oil and gas leasing; and a commitment to scrub a derogatory term for Native American women from geographic features on federal land.

Haaland was joined in the call Wednesday by fellow New Mexican Tanya Trujillo, an assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior Department. Trujillo outlined investments in water infrastructure that she said will help build resiliency in the system and ensure there's enough for the natural environment that relies on it.

The U.S. West is in the midst of a megadrought that has shrunken rivers and key water sources faster than expected. On Wednesday, Lake Powell on the Colorado River dropped to its lowest level ever, raising new concerns about power produced at the dam that holds it back on the Arizona-Utah border.

Already, California, Nevada, Arizona and Mexico are taking a mix of voluntary and mandatory water cuts from the river.

Santa Fe woman gets prison term in 2018 death of her stepson - Associated Press

A Santa Fe woman accused of fatally strangling her 5-year-old stepson in 2018 is facing a 25-year prison term.

Prosecutors say 23-year-old Melynie Tyalan Curtis pleaded no contest Tuesday to charges of second-degree murder and child abuse resulting in great bodily harm.

They said Curtis' plea agreement calls for the dismissal of the remaining charges against her in a nine-count amended indictment.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the 23-year-old Curtis will be required to serve at least 85 percent of her sentence and won't be eligible to accrue day-for-day credits for good behavior to reduce her prison time beyond 15 percent.

Authorities said Curtis called 911 in September 2018 to report she had found her stepson unconscious in a bathtub.

He was airlifted to an Albuquerque hospital where medical personnel told police the boy's injuries were not consistent with a near-drowning.

Jayden Curtis died a few days later when his parents took him off life support, according to authorities.

FBI: Shooting on tribal reservation involved federal agents - Associated Press

The FBI said Wednesday it is investigating a shooting that involved federal Homeland Security Investigations agents and occurred on a tribal reservation in New Mexico.

No agents were injured but one "subject" was wounded in the incident Tuesday on the Laguna Pueblo, the FBI said in a brief statement.

No identities or details on what prompted the shooting were released, and the FBI said no additional information was available because the investigation was ongoing.

Laguna Pueblo is 42 miles west of Albuquerque.

Lake Powell hits historic low, raising hydropower concerns - By Sam Metz And Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

A massive reservoir known as a boating mecca dipped below a critical threshold on Tuesday raising new concerns about a source of power that millions of people in the U.S. West rely on for electricity.

Lake Powell's fall to below 3,525 feet (1,075 meters) puts it at its lowest level since the lake filled after the federal government dammed the Colorado River at Glen Canyon more than a half century ago — a record marking yet another sobering realization of the impacts of climate change and megadrought.

It comes as hotter temperatures and less precipitation leave a smaller amount flowing through the over-tapped Colorado River. Though water scarcity is hardly new in the region, hydropower concerns at Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona reflect that a future western states assumed was years away is approaching — and fast.

"We clearly weren't sufficiently prepared for the need to move this quickly," said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico's Water Resources Program.

Federal officials are confident water levels will rise in the coming months once snow melts in the Rockies. But they warn that more may need to be done to ensure Glen Canyon Dam can keep producing hydropower in the years ahead.

"Spring runoff will resolve the deficit in the short term," said Wayne Pullan, regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water and power in more than a dozen states. "However, our work is not done."

Though both Lake Powell and its downstream counterpart, Lake Mead, are dropping faster than expected, much of the region's focus has been on how to deal with water scarcity in Arizona, Nevada and California, not electricity supply.

For Glen Canyon Dam, the new level is 35 feet (11 meters) above what's considered "minimum power pool" — the level at which its turbines would stop producing hydroelectric power.

If Lake Powell drops even more, it could soon hit "deadpool" — the point at which water likely would fail to flow through the dam and onto Lake Mead. Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico already are taking a combination of mandatory and voluntary cuts tied to Lake Mead's levels.

About 5 million customers in seven states — Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — buy power generated at Glen Canyon Dam.

The government provides it at a cheaper rate than energy sold on the wholesale market, which can be wind, solar, coal or natural gas.

For the cities, rural electric cooperatives and tribes that rely on its hydropower, less water flowing through Glen Canyon Dam can therefore increase total energy costs. Customers bear the brunt.

The situation worries the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, one of the 50 tribal suppliers that rely on the dam for hydropower. It plans to spend $4.5 million on an alternative energy supply this year.

"It's a very sensitive issue for all of us right now," said Walter Haase, the tribal utility's general manager.

Bureau of Reclamation officials last summer took an unprecedented step and diverted water from reservoirs in Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado in what they called "emergency releases" to replenish Lake Powell. In January, the agency also held back water scheduled to be released through the dam to prevent it from dipping even lower.

Anxieties stretch beyond hydropower. Last summer, tourism and boating were hobbled by falling lake levels. The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is taking advantage of the low levels at Lake Powell to extend boat ramps. Most are now closed or come with warnings to launch at your own risk.

In Page, Arizona, which benefits from recreation at Lake Powell, officials launched a campaign this month to highlight that lower levels aren't necessarily bad for visitors, noting receding shorelines have revealed sunken boats, canyons and other geographic wonders.

"There's tremendous amounts of history out there," City Councilman Richard Leightner said. "You can see some of the old dwellings, and parts of the Old Spanish Trail are accessible now. It's an opportunity, but it just depends on the person's frame of mind."

The record low also comes after a tough year for hydropower. Last year, as U.S. officials worked to expand renewable energy, drought in the West drove a decline in hydropower generation, making it harder for officials to meet demand. Hydropower accounts for more than one-third of the nation's utility-scale renewable energy.

Nick Williams, the bureau's Upper Colorado Basin power manager, said many variables, including precipitation and heat, will determine the extent to which Lake Powell rebounds in the coming months.

Regardless, hydrology modeling suggests there's roughly a 1 in 4 chance it won't be able to produce power by 2024.

APS to make layoffs amid slumping enrollmentAlbuquerque Journal, KUNM News

The state’s largest school district will need to make staffing cuts in the fall to cope a deficit brought on by sagging enrollment.

The Albuquerque Journal reports Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Scott Elder announced Monday the district is about $17 million dollars in the hole and, as a result, will need to let about 300 employees go, or about 5% of its staff district-wide.

Elder says this is the first time he’s seen APS make significant layoffs like this during his more than 30 years at the district.

Elder says that the drop in enrollment isn’t just because of the pandemic, though it’s played a role. He also cited a declining number of youths in the area over the last several years.

According to district data, APS enrollment was down by more than 5-thousand students this school year and has dropped by about 12-thousand since 2016.

As a result, Elder says APS’s budget will likely shrink by $17-and-a-half million dollars for the next school year.

This news comes as teacher raises were signed into law this month for the fiscal year beginning in July. Elder says the district’s smaller budget will not have an effect on the pay bumps.

Watchdog has concerns with projects at US nuclear repository - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

There's no way of knowing if cost increases and missed construction deadlines will continue at the only U.S. underground nuclear waste repository, according to independent federal investigators, according to results of a federal watchdog report made public Tuesday.

The Government Accountability Office outlined the concerns in its report, noting that the U.S. Energy Department is not required to develop a corrective action plan for addressing the root causes of challenges at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico.

A multimillion-dollar project is underway at the underground facility to install a new ventilation system so that full operations can resume, following a radiation leak in 2014 forced the repository's closure for nearly three years.

Operations after it reopened had to be throttled back because parts of the facility were contaminated and airflow was reduced.

Federal officials have said that the construction project will ensure that the repository can meet the Energy Department's needs for disposing of tons of Cold War-era waste left behind by decades of bomb making and nuclear research.

But the Government Accountability Office report stated that the Energy Department faces construction and regulatory risks that might delay its plans.

According to Energy Department documents, the ventilation project as of last fall was projected to cost about $486 million, nearly 70% more than originally planned. The project also is about three years behind schedule, with a new estimated completion date of January 2026.

The Energy Department had blamed significant cost overruns and delays on the contractor's inexperience and difficulties in attracting workers to the area, an expansive desert that is also home to one of the most productive oilfields in the world.

While some corrective measures were taken, department officials told the Government Accountability Office that they have not updated an internal system that is meant to track risks and mitigation measures.

Without the updates, Energy Department officials may not be able to meet their waste disposal schedule, "which could in turn create shipping delays and cost increases for the sites that are generating the waste," the accountability office's report said.

The report reiterated that the repository is running out of permitted space for waste and that the Energy Department has a large amount of "transuranic waste" — which typically consists of lab coats, rubber gloves, tools and debris contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements — at sites around the country that still requires disposal.

The repository was carved out of an ancient salt formation about a half-mile below the surface, with the idea that the shifting salt would eventually entomb the radioactive waste.

Its current footprint includes eight panels, which the Energy Department estimates will be filled in 2025. There are plans for two new panels in the short term, but the report noted that it's unclear whether the new space will be ready in time to prevent an interruption of disposal operations.

New Mexico regulators also have yet approved permit changes and other requests from the Energy Department, and it's unclear how long that will take.

Department officials in a response to the report agreed with the recommendations aimed at addressing the root causes of the cost increases and construction delays to ensure "that DOE projects benefit taxpayers while reducing the risk to human health and the environment."

Nuclear watchdog groups have been critical of the Energy Department. They have raised concerns about the repository's future, citing the increase in defense-related waste that will need to be disposed of when production of key components for the country's nuclear arsenal ramps up at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Multiple dead in crash involving U. of Southwest golf teams - Associated Press

A vehicle carrying members of the University of the Southwest's golf teams collided head-on with a pickup truck in West Texas, killing multiple people, authorities said.

The vehicles collided Tuesday night in Andrews County and Sgt. Steven Blanco of the Texas Department of Public Safety told KWES-TV there were fatalities in both vehicles, but the number of dead wasn't immediately released.

"It's a very tragic scene," Blanco said. "It's very, very tragic."

The bus or van was transporting members of the men's and women's golf teams from a golf tournament, Blanco said, and the other vehicle involved was a Ford F-150.

The teams had been scheduled to play in a tournament Tuesday at Midland College, about 315 miles west of Dallas.

The University of the Southwest is a private, Christian college located in Hobbs, New Mexico, near the state's border with Texas.

The university said on Twitter that it was working to notify family members of those involved in the crash, and counseling and religious services would be available on campus.

The crash was under investigation, Blanco said, and details about the number of people in each vehicle weren't immediately released. The roadway where the crash occurred was closed early Wednesday.

Police identify man suspected of shooting 3 in Albuquerque - Associated Press

Authorities on Tuesday released the name of a man suspected of shooting three people in the same northeast Albuquerque neighborhood where he lived before he was shot and killed by police officers.

Albuquerque police said 52-year-old John Dawson Hunter is believed to have fatally shot 31-year-old Alicia Hall as she was driving her vehicle Monday afternoon in the Foothills area.

Hunter also is suspected of shooting and wounding a man and a female teenager. Both victims suffered non-life-threatening injuries. Their names haven't been released.

"Investigators have reason to believe Hunter was suffering some sort of mental crisis when he started shooting randomly at people in the area of his home," police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that Hunter's parents had lived in the one-story brick house since 1994 and he inherited it after his mother died in 2013.

Police said Hunter was later killed after an altercation with officers and two handguns were found at the scene.

Three police officers suffered minor injuries during the gunfire that resulted in Hunter's death, according to police.

They said it appears the officers' injuries may have resulted from gunshots that struck a cinderblock wall that broke up and sent debris in their direction.