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FRI: Muhammad Syed enters not guilty plea in Muslim slayings, + More

Muhammad Syed
Megan Kamerick
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KUNM
Muhammad Syed attends his hearing virtually on Wednesday, Aug.17, 2022.

Afghan refugee enters not guilty plea in Muslim slayings - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A lawyer for an Afghan refugee accused in the Albuquerque slayings of three Muslim entered a not guilty plea Friday on her client's behalf as the community continues its struggle to understand the motives behind the killings.

Muhammad Syed, 51, appeared remotely for the court hearing and will remain held without bond pending trial. He is charged with three counts of murder and tampering with evidence, and police have identified him as the suspect in the killing of a fourth Muslim man.

Syed, who has been in the U.S. with his family for several years, previously denied involvement in the killings when authorities detained him earlier this month.

Authorities have not disclosed a motive for the killings, but prosecutors have described Syed as having a violent history. His public defenders have argued that previous allegations of domestic violence against Syed never resulted in convictions.

Authorities have said they have linked bullet casings found at two of the crime scenes with casings found in Syed's vehicle and with guns found at his home and in his vehicle.

Syed was arrested Aug. 8 more than 100 miles from his Albuquerque home after tips led investigators to the Syed family. He told authorities he was on his way to Texas to find a new home for his family, saying he was concerned about the ambush-style killings.

Syed has been charged with these killings:

— Aftab Hussein, 41, was slain July 26 after parking his car in his usual spot near his home.

— Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, a 27-year-old urban planner who had worked on the campaign of a New Mexico congresswoman, was gunned down Aug. 1 while taking his evening walk.

— Naeem Hussain was shot Aug. 5 as he sat in his vehicle outside a refugee resettlement agency on the city's south side following funeral services for two of the other shooting victims. Shots were fired at Hussain's SUV, striking him in the head and the arm.

Syed is the primary suspect — but hasn't been charged — in last November's slaying of Muhammad Zahir Ahmadi, a 62-year-old Afghan immigrant who was fatally shot in the head behind the market he owned.

Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, the older brother of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, said in an interview Friday that his family is heartbroken and frustrated because they have no idea why the young man from Pakistan would have been targeted or how he would have crossed paths with Syed.

The two men were from different Islamic backgrounds. Syed speaks Pashto and no English. Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, who was the son of an elementary school teacher, studied law and human resource management at the University of Punjab before coming to the U.S. in 2017.

"These questions are rattling in my mind," the victim's brother said. "If you punish him (Syed) for 10 years, 20, 30, 1,000 or a million years, how would I satisfy myself if I don't know why he killed my brother? What happened to him? For me, for justice, we need to know why."

Muhammad Afzaal Hussain was working as the city of Española's planning and land use director after receiving a master's degree from the University of New Mexico. During his time at UNM, he became a student leader and an advocate for the international community.

His colleagues and those in political circles described him as having a bright future. His brother said his ultimate goal was to open a school in their hometown in Pakistan so other children could be afforded a quality education.

Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain said that mission will continue.

"My brother died but we will aim to make more brothers and sisters like him who can inspire people, who work for the benefit of humanity, who help others, who raise their voice for others," he said.

NM Supreme Court denies pandemic prison releases – By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

New Mexico’s highest court on Thursday tossed out a lawsuit filed in 2020 seeking the release of incarcerated people to protect them from getting infected with coronavirus.

Jennifer Burrill, the head of one of the organizations who brought the suit, said she is frustrated by the decision because it throws out the case on procedural grounds and doesn’t address the issue of COVID spread in prisons.

Eight people incarcerated in New Mexico prisons, along with the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, alleged that state officials allowed COVID-19 to run “rampant in New Mexico’s prisons” by refusing to enforce their own mandates for social distancing, mask-wearing, heightened hygiene practices, and safe quarantine and treatment.

But a state District Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, and on Thursday the Supreme Court upheld the decision.

In a unanimous ruling, the court said the incarcerated people who sued the state didn’t first exhaust all of the New Mexico Corrections Department’s “internal grievance procedures” before they filed the lawsuit.

“I think this is procedural,” she said. “They’re just basically giving a roadmap for how to do it next time.”

It’s unfortunate that the underlying issue of COVID spread in prisons will not be addressed, Burrill said.

Around this time last year, analysts with the Legislative Finance Committee wrote that New Mexico saw much higher rates of COVID infection and death in its prisons than most other states. People behind the walls were more than twice as likely to die from COVID than the national average, they wrote in an evaluation of the state’s Corrections Department. “COVID-19 was also 40 percent more likely to be fatal in New Mexico’s prisons compared with the U.S. prison system as a whole,” according to the report.

In the state Supreme Court’s ruling this week, justices pointed to state law requiring incarcerated people to file emergency grievances to their prison’s warden. If the warden won’t or can’t solve the problem, the policy requires incarcerated people to appeal to the statewide grievance/disciplinary appeals manager.

The law does not allow courts to make exceptions to this requirement before suing, the Supreme Court wrote.

There are eight named plaintiffs in the lawsuit who represent everyone incarcerated in New Mexico prisons as a class action group. The high court also said that they failed to get that class certified.

“Because of the COVID numbers in the prisons and the jails even today, we know that it’s spreading,” Burrill said. “So it’s very likely that these are valid claims.” But the merits of the case won’t even be heard because of these rules, she added.

Since the beginning of the pandemic and to this day, attorneys have routinely been unable to speak with their clients because they are in quarantine, “because there’s still COVID rampant within the jails and prisons,” she said.

There have been at least 29 incarcerated people who have died of COVID in the New Mexico prison system, according to the COVID Prison Project.

Another 4,104 incarcerated people tested positive for the virus, and many are likely to go on to develop Long COVID, which can permanently damage organs, even when the initial infection doesn’t result in symptoms or a trip to the hospital.

Burrill pointed out that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took steps to protect people by requiring masking and social distancing at times during the pandemic, but it’s unfortunate that none of those things are happening in the jails and prisons in New Mexico.

She’s had clients who were taken from the prisons to courthouses without wearing a mask, she said, and she witnessed judges get upset when they walked through the courtroom doors because of that.

The Supreme Court should take steps to make sure that people in custody are safe, she said. The families of incarcerated people who have died of COVID in New Mexico prisons may have a claim under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, she said, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court normally has a rulemaking process that goes through committees and can take a year or more, Burrill said.

During the pandemic, state Supreme Court justices were granted authority to bypass a lengthy rulemaking process, and that included orders on mask mandates and suspension of trials — emergency measures that would not have been effective if they’d had to go through the entire process, she said.

This year, the court used the emergency rulemaking process to prohibit criminal defendants from excusing a judge they believe cannot rule impartially, she said. The very next month, the court used the same emergency rulemaking process to lift the statewide eviction moratorium, she said.

“So it’s a little frustrating that they have taken the opportunity to make systemic rule changes under this COVID authority to make the process faster to convict people or to get through the process and acquit them,” Burrill said. “But they have done — obviously this lawsuit makes very clear — nothing to protect people who are incarcerated.”

New Mexico surpasses 1,000 weed industry licenses - Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News

Less than 6 months since recreational weed became legal in New Mexico, the state has issued over 1,000 cannabis licenses.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the state’s Cannabis Control Division presented on the industry’s growth at legislative committee hearing this week.

So far, the industry has brought in close to $88 million in sales.

Some lawmakers and industry professionals expressed concern over fairness in the local industry.

Democratic Sen. Joseph Cervantes said a small group of longtime operators control the state’s market.

Other lawmakers and industry professionals pointed to the lack of a cap on the number of licenses the state can issue as risking a flooded market.

Democratic Sen. Katy Duhigg said other states with unlimited licensure have had the bottom fall out of their industries, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the same happened in New Mexico.

She said, if it does, a lot of people will lose a lot of money.

State allows asphalt plant construction in south Santa Fe despite concerns about health impacts - By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

Santa Feans fought for a year to prevent an asphalt company’s expansion into the city’s South Side, but New Mexico’s Environmental Improvement Board voted unanimously Friday morning to allow the operation to proceed.

The Environment Department gave Associated Asphalt and Materials, LLC, a permit in July 2021 to consolidate two asphalt plants in Santa Fe to one facility on the South Side. Opponents challenged this the following month with concerns of negative health and social impacts in an area where people already live without sufficient health care.

With guidance from the Environmental Law Center, Miguel Acosta, co-director of the Santa Fe-based nonprofit Earth Care New Mexico, and local resident Linda Marianiello appealed to the state. They said there were inadequacies in NMED’s permitting process and that the plant would violate state and national air quality standards.

But the Environmental Improvement Board disagreed in a final order on the matter. Board Chair Phoebe Suina said in the order that NMED sufficiently followed all required permitting processes and that the opposition didn’t have enough evidence to show that the plant would break air quality rules.

Attorney Travis Jackson, representing Associated Asphalt and Materials, said the permit doesn’t create a new plant but rather consolidates two into one. The asphalt company builds and maintains roads around Santa Fe, and Jackson said this expansion “will improve air quality while also making sure that the Santa Fe area is able to maintain and improve its road systems with locally accessible, high-quality materials.”

Matthew Maez, spokesperson for the N.M. Environment Department, agreed that consolidation will reduce pollution. He said it will also allow the state to more easily hold the asphalt company accountable, because the permit has updated requirements on monitoring, recordkeeping and reporting.

The original permit has limits on air pollutants, Suina (Cochiti / San Felipe) pointed out in the order, and if there are infractions, the state can follow up with citations, corrective actions, penalties or even a lawsuit.

The decision goes against Hearing Officer Richard Virtue’s recommendation in May, which was that the permit should not be approved and instead go to the Air Quality Bureau for further review. He said that the consolidation would break air quality rules or at least contribute to violations.

Lead attorney Maslyn Locke, representing Earth Care and Marianiello, said via email that it’s disappointing the board allowed the permit to move forward despite the hearing officer’s recommendation.

“This decision ultimately means that Santa Fe’s South Side residents, who are primarily Spanish-speaking, lower income, young families, will continue to bear the disproportionate burden of air pollution,” Locke said.

The petitioners and legal team will meet in the near future to discuss potential next steps, Marianiello said. They have 30 days to appeal the decision through state court. If they don’t, the order becomes final and the permit goes into effect.

Eastern Kentucky player charged with robbing NM postal carrier - Associated Press

Eastern Kentucky defensive back Marquae Kirkendoll has been charged with robbing a postal carrier in New Mexico and is no longer enrolled at the school.

According to documents filed in federal court in New Mexico this week, the 21-year-old Kirkendoll was also charged with stealing a key from the carrier used to open mail bags and lock boxes, as well as brandishing a gun, aiding and abetting, and conspiracy.

Kirkendoll transferred from New Mexico to Eastern Kentucky in January. His lawyer, Adele Burt Brown, did not return a message seeking comment.

Also charged in the Jan. 18 robbery was another former UNM player, Rayshawn Boyce, who was arrested in February. Boyce faces an additional charge of knowingly possessing a firearm after being convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence, the documents state.

Kirkendoll was charged on Tuesday, and Eastern Kentucky football spokesman Rixon Lane said the player was suspended the next day after the program learned of his arrest. He was no longer enrolled in classes as of Friday afternoon, Lane said.

The 6-foot, 184-pound Chicago native played in 16 games for New Mexico over two seasons.

'Forever chemicals' pose urgent concern in New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico's top environmental regulator on Thursday warned state lawmakers that taxpayers could be on the hook for groundwater contamination since the U.S. Defense Department continues to challenge the state's authority to force cleanup of "forever chemicals" at two air bases.

The plumes of PFAS compounds are projected to move further beyond the boundaries of Cannon Air Force Base, and Environment Secretary James Kenney told a panel of lawmakers during a meeting in Clovis that it's an urgent economic and environmental issue.

The state already has spent $6 million on the problem, he said.

The Defense Department has worked with other communities in neighboring Texas to remediate similar damage, but not in New Mexico, where the agency opted in January 2019 to file a lawsuit challenging the state's regulatory authority.

Work also has been done in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Colorado, and Kenney said that leaves New Mexico as the only state being sued by the federal government over this issue.

"We have to tackle this," Kenney told members of the Legislature's Water and Natural Resources Committee, "and unfortunately we are tackling it as taxpayers, as opposed to the Department of Defense tackling it as the polluter."

Records obtained by the state Environment Department through public record requests do not indicate plans by the federal government to clean up contamination beyond Cannon's boundaries.

The Air Force Civil Engineering Center announced earlier this spring that it was installing groundwater monitoring wells as a part of an investigation to determine the extent of potential PFAS compounds in groundwater from the base. The Air Force also installed filtration systems in 2021 and provided drinking water to some well owners who had their supplies tainted.

Advocates have long urged action on PFAS after thousands of communities detected PFAS chemicals in their water. PFAS chemicals have been confirmed at nearly 400 military installations and at least 200 million people in the United States are drinking water contaminated with PFAS, according to the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization.

In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned some PFAS compounds found in drinking water were more dangerous than previously thought and pose health risks even at low levels.

The agency issued health advisories that set thresholds for PFOA and PFOS to near zero, replacing 2016 guidelines that had set them at 70 parts per trillion.

Found in products including cardboard packaging, carpets and firefighting foam, the toxic industrial compounds are associated with serious health conditions, including cancer and reduced birth weight.

With the EPA posed to set a drinking water standard for the compounds later this year, New Mexico lawmakers asked if that would mean more drinking water wells in the Clovis area and those around Alamogordo — home to Holloman Air Force Base — would have to be shut down if the level of contamination is detectable.

Kenney said there are numerous sites around New Mexico — from a national guard armory in Rio Rancho to an old army depot east of Gallup — where there's suspected contamination.

Outside of Clovis, fourth generation dairy farmer Art Schaap had his livelihood destroyed by contamination from the nearby base. About 3,600 of his cows had to be euthanized, he had to let dozens of employees go, and it's unlikely his farm will ever be contamination-free.

He told lawmakers about the resulting financial ruin and the mental and physical anguish.

"We're just scratching the surface now with this problem," Schaap said, warning that other dairies are next in line if the contamination isn't addressed.

The state has helped with the disposal of the toxic livestock carcasses and state officials vowed Thursday they would continue to the fight the Defense Department in court. A federal judge just last week dismissed the agency's lawsuit, saying it was a matter that needed to be decided by the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

Lawmakers suggested they might consider amending the state's hazardous waste law to remove any ambiguity regarding the Environment Department's authority for toxic chemicals like PFAS. They also discussed the possibility of an epidemiological study of residents and veterans to see if they have been exposed to the chemicals.

New Mexico governor tests positive for COVID - Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday morning and was receiving an antiviral drug treatment.

Lujan Grisham said in a statement that she was experiencing mild symptoms and is working in isolation from the governor's mansion in Santa Fe.

It was the first positive coronavirus test for the 62-year-old Democratic governor and former congresswoman. Lujan Grisham says she has been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, including two booster shots.

"I am very grateful to be experiencing only mild symptoms," she said in a statement. "Per medical guidance, I have also started a course of the antiviral Paxlovid."

The governor last tested negative for COVID-19 on Aug. 24. People in close recent contact with the governor were notified.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sacket says the governor traveled to Colorado on Monday and Tuesday for campaign-related activities.

Lujan Grisham is vying for a second term in the November election against Republican nominee Mark Ronchetti, a former television meteorologist.

People in NM prisons often held at the wrong security level, report shows – By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

There is technically a law library at the maximum security Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe, but someone like Michael Armendariz can’t just walk in and pull a book off the shelf.

All New Mexico prisons “have legal library services,” said New Mexico Corrections Department spokesperson Carmelina Hart.

This is true, but someone classified as a level four prisoner, also known as someone held in “security threat unit housing,” cannot just go to a library. They also don’t have access to a computer, or the Internet, or even a copy machine.

Armendariz is a poet, rapper and artist from Los Lunas. Anything that he and the roughly 230 people in level four and held in Santa Fe seek must be requested through pencil and paper, and they rely on others to deliver those things, including library materials.

“We don’t actually go anywhere,” he said.

And when you don’t know anything about the law to begin with, you can’t possibly know how to use the law library in the first place, Armendariz said.

“The option is technically there, but it’s effectively useless,” Armendariz said.

The prison system is designed to be in opposition to an incarcerated person’s needs, said Melissa Mullinax, who has been friends with Armendariz since she met him while running education programs in New Mexico prisons from 2011 to 2013 for AmeriCorps and the Corrections Department.

“Once you’ve been convicted of a crime, the state has a vested interest in you remaining convicted and continuing to be incarcerated,” Mullinax said. “That is the premise on which everything else operates.”

Armendariz said authorities in 2005 classified him as a member of the Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico prison gang.

His mother Diana Crowson testified at an interim legislative committee hearing on July 27 that her son’s classification was the result of him being incorrectly identified as a gang member.

Hart, the prison spokesperson, said someone “validated as a member of a prison gang with a well-documented history of gang violence or gang activity” would be placed in level four.

She said the department has a process that allows people to be classified at a lower level “if they are willing to renounce their gang membership and disassociate themselves from the gang.”

Armendariz said he has had no discipline in the past 10 years that might affect his classification. He said prison officials have kept him in level four because he grew up with and knows a lot of people who are in some way associated with prison gangs.

According to court records, Armendariz was convicted of first-degree murder for fatally shooting an off-duty Valencia County sheriff’s deputy and wounding his brother, an off-duty New Mexico State Police officer, on Oct. 6, 2002 during a fight at the Two-Minute Warning, a bar in Los Lunas.

Armendariz has spent the last 20 years fighting his conviction, twice in state court in 2006 and 2018. To do that, he must use the law library.

“It’s an incredibly laborious, tedious and often unreliable process because the employees in the correctional facilities, in my experience, are not motivated to help people and do the bare minimum that’s required by their jobs,” Mullinax said. “I don’t mean to say that to degrade anyone; I think it’s a systemic function of the prison itself. But it makes it incredibly challenging — impossible — to do any real legal work.”

That’s not even considering how complex the law is, Mullinax said, all of the logistics around trying to fight a case, more or less on your own, while in prison.

Armendariz’s profile on the department’s website shows him as level five, however, Hart said the level five classification refers to a program that no longer exists. Level four is the highest level in the classification system today, Hart said.

Hart said access to legal library services “is not dependent on the custody level of the facility.”

But if Armendariz was in a lower classification, he could transfer to one of those prisons where he would have better access to a law library in-person.

Incarcerated people who are classified as level four and held in Santa Fe must wait for about a week to hear back about their request for library materials, which can make it harder to understand and use prior case law to argue before the court and meet its deadlines, he said.

That’s especially hard for someone like Armendariz who has to count on prison staff to deliver library materials.

And in Mullinax’s experience, it doesn’t always happen: Staff members often bring back something else, don’t respond for weeks — or don’t respond at all.

“I can’t emphasize enough how unmotivated the staff are,” Mullinax said. They’re encouraged to do as little as possible, she said, “because if you show interest in people, then they call that ‘undue familiarity’ and you could be fired for that sort of thing.”

Armendariz is working on it doggedly despite the conditions, she said, but he can’t do it himself.

“He’s relying on this network of people who are systemically required not to care about him or his well-being,” Mullinax said. “They don’t want to help, and so he’s up against this constantly.”‘

REFORMS TO CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM DELAYED

Armendariz is not alone: People in New Mexico prisons “are frequently placed at higher security levels than the scoring tool indicates is necessary,” according to Legislative Finance Committee researchers. The classification system is not something written out in state law or regulation. It is determined by Corrections Department policy.

In a July 2020 report, LFC analysts found that between 2014 and 2016, 60% of all newly incarcerated people scored low enough to be held in minimum security, but the majority of them ended up in medium security.

Because the tool prison officials use to classify people has never been validated, it is impossible to say for sure whether the decisions based on it are appropriate or represent unnecessary overclassification, the LFC analysts wrote.

“Validation should help shed light on whether some portion of the medium-security population could be safely housed in minimum security,” the LFC wrote.

Since before her son went to prison in 2002, Crowson has been an activist on prisoners’ rights issues. She told lawmakers the informant who accused Armendariz of being in a gang did not need any proof.

If someone is ever identified as a gang member, they can never go below level four unless they snitch someone else out, Crowson said.

“But most of the inmates realize that that’s probably a death sentence to do that, number one,” Crowson said. “ And number two, they just have more integrity.”

Armendariz has not been charged with any crime since his original conviction, according to court records.

Corrections Department policy requires prison officials to figure out every incarcerated person’s programming and rehabilitation needs, but the LFC found that in 2018, they had conducted the needs assessment on only 4% of incarcerated people.

If someone shows good behavior over a long period of time, they can get moved to a lower classification. However, the LFC wrote that good behavior can be canceled out by old offenses.

“Revising this aspect of the scoring instrument may make it easier for inmates to access less restrictive custody levels without compromising safety,” the LFC wrote.

The researchers are asking the state to change the scoring so that it only considers discipline over the past year.

Incidents that result in discipline follow people for a decade, and serious misconduct within the last 10 years can raise someone’s classification, the LFC analysts found. But UNM researchers in 2017 found that only recent misconduct over the past year actually helps predict the risk for future misconduct.

The July 2020 report said the department was expected to finish validating its classification system this summer with help from the University of New Mexico Institute for Social Research, which will result in new classification tools for incarcerated people.

But Paul Guerin, director of the institute’s Center for Applied Research and Analysis, said on Aug. 11 that the work is still ongoing and will not be done until June 2023.

“COVID-19 limited our ability to access prisons for some of the work and made it more challenging to get needed data,” Guerin said.

Researchers also wrote that the classification system results in increased costs of holding people at high-security levels, totaling as much as $28 million per year.

Hart said that as it stands, the classification system is effective at reducing violence, but the department does recognize that it is over 20 years old.

“The ISR study is assessing the potential benefits of revising the classification process, including not only cost but overall safety,” Hart said. “The safety of our staff, individuals in our custody, and the entire community, will always be NMCD’s top priority.”

To Mullinax, trying to fight a conviction while in prison is unimaginably frustrating, like Sisyphus eternally rolling a boulder up a hill in the depths of Hades.

“So you’re doing it on top of living in this totally inhumane environment where you aren’t allowed any love, or physical contact, or intimacy, or support,” Mullinax said. Imagine trying to tackle something really difficult and important in your life, except in a cell “with this whole mountain of things against you, knowing that nobody wants you to succeed.”

APS board OKs unions contract following negotiation impasse - Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News

After a first-of-its kind decision by the Albuquerque Public School Board of Education last week to table the district’s agreement with the teachers’ union, the board voted Wednesday night to approve it.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the 6-to-1 vote came after an hours-long private bargaining meeting. Board member Peggy Muller-Aragón was alone in voting the ratification down.

Several board members had initially taken issue with the amount of professional judgment the contract gave to educators over academic issues, hoping the board would retain more control. The board asked for more time to consider the agreement, leading the Albuquerque Teachers Federation to declare a formal impasse on the negotiations.

The board received considerable criticism, including more than 6,400 letters. Dozens of teachers wore red to the meeting, calling for the board to approve the contact.

It includes raises for social workers and counselors on-par with those approved for teachers in the last legislative session. While the board had already approved the raises, the impasse put them in question, according to union president Ellen Bernstein.

Bernstein told the Journal the board QUOTE-“did the right thing” by approving the contract, but that their initial resistance damaged trust with APS teachers.

Rare Nevada fish to get full review for possible US listing - By Scott Sonner Associated Press

U.S. wildlife officials say there's enough evidence a rare fish along the California-Nevada line may be at risk of extinction to warrant a yearlong review to determine if it should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Conservationists who petitioned for protection of the Fish Lake Valley tui chub in March 2021 say dwindling populations of the 5-inch-long (13-centimeter-long) olive-colored minnow remain in only one basin in Esmeralda County halfway between Reno and Las Vegas.

They primarily blame over-pumping of groundwater to irrigate farms and livestock pastures for a dramatic shrinking of its habitat in the drought-stricken West, where water shortages threaten numerous other species.

"Over exploitation of groundwater is a huge threat to these fish and the spring they call home," said Krista Kemppinen, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity who co-authored the petition.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its positive 90-day finding this week.

"The petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that listing the Fish Lake Valley tui chub as an endangered or threatened species may be warranted," the finding published in Tuesday's Federal Register said.

Threats to the fish include effects from agriculture, encroachment of aquatic plants, geothermal energy, lithium mining and climate change, it said. A full-blown review of its status is due next August.

Lake Valley's groundwater levels have declined as much as 2.5 feet (76 centimeters) per year over the past half-century, causing a cumulative drawdown of more than 75 feet (23 meters) since 1973, the petition said.

The consultant Esmeralda County hired to develop its water resource plan in 2012 warned the Fish Lake Valley basin "is experiencing irreparable damage from water production that exceeds annual recharge."

"This overdraft is resulting in a collapse of aquifer storage," Reno-based Farr West Engineering said then.

Nevada Farm Bureau Executive Vice President Doug Busselman said most local farmers and ranchers probably haven't heard of the tui chub. But they've long been concerned water is over-appropriated there — which means, at least on paper, rights have been granted to more water than actually exists.

"In the years I've been down there, I have been hearing different accounts from domestic-well owners who are concerned because they have to dig deeper wells," Busselman said Wednesday.

The petition should serve as "notice for people to become aware and study it and try to find out what can be done about the underlying problems," he said. "This isn't the first petition we've been through and won't be the last."

Busselman said federal involvement often is counter-productive because regulatory responses can take years.

"It's a lot easier to work through a state process that deals with the laws of water rights vs. having to contend with ... an Endangered Species Act kind of thing," he said.

The petition said climate change is contributing to threats to water supplies across the West that support fish like the one in Nevada.

Average temperatures are rising and eight of Nevada's 10 warmest years since 1895 have occurred since 2000. The frequency and intensity of drought is expected to continue to increase and snowpack decrease 30-50% by 2100 in most basins, according to a 2020 state climate study.

Western fish that are already listed under the Endangered Species Act and face increasing threats from drought include Chinook salmon in California's Central Valley, the Rio Grande silvery minnow in New Mexico and the San Pedro Gila chub in southern Arizona.

USFWS said when it listed the San Pedro Gila chub in 2005 that it was one of only two native fish species remaining in the San Pedro River, which historically supported at least 13. The agency cited groundwater pumping for agricultural and municipal uses as a contributing factor to the loss of Gila chub.

Kemp pointed to a 2020 study published in the online journal Nature Sustainability, and cited by the U.S. Agriculture and Interior departments, which concluded 53 fish species were at increased risk of imperilment or extinction due to water flow depletion caused primarily by irrigation of cattle and feed crops in the U.S. West.

"With water dwindling across the West, there could be a flood of new aquatic species petitions in coming years, as more and more aquatic species face extinction," said Patrick Donnelly, the center's Great Basin director. "The Fish Lake Valley tui chub and least chub (another imperiled subspecies) are just the tip of the iceberg."