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FRI: Las Vegas slowly rebuilds clean water supply, NM COVID booster rollout focuses on seniors, + More

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Patrick Lohmann
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Source New Mexico
The Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, N.M. on Monday. The city’s water supply is imperiled by ash carried in from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon burn scar, so customers are being asked to take short showers and turn off the faucet.

Las Vegas slowly rebuilds clean water supply, but residents worry about long-term future - Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico 

Residents of the New Mexico city downriver of the biggest fire in state history have been drinking bottled water and eating off paper plates for several months now, an effort to preserve the city’s dwindling clean water supply.

This month, a stopgap filtration system installed in nearby Storrie Lake State Park means the city of Las Vegas is beginning to slowly increase the amount of clean water in storage, an effort city leaders said last week will help them ease water restrictions.

But those leaders also said in a forum last week that they are focused for now on the city’s short-term water future, and residents fear what might come next.

“I feel like it may be a ghost town here, eventually,” Kimberly Ludi, manager of El Rialto restaurant in downtown Las Vegas, told Source New Mexico.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire destroyed the fragile Gallinas Watershed, sending debris and ash into the Gallinas River and contaminating nearby bodies of water, including the reservoir for Las Vegas. Since July, the city has imposed water restrictions to reduce consumption. At one point in early September, the city only had enough water to last residents for 21 days.

But since then, the restrictions have worked.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has distributed more than 1 million bottles of water, according to the latest update from the agency, and city residents used 200,000 fewer gallons of water a day than normal, according to Las Vegas mayor Louie Trujllo.

The city recently completed the installation of a $2 million filtration system at Storrie Lake, which treats sedimented water before it’s sent to the Bradner Reservoir. That system, paid for with a state emergency grant, has helped the city build up about 32 days’ worth of clean water, and the number increases each day.

At city restaurants, which were asked to reduce consumption by 10%, customers order bottled water, eat off paper plates and pay an additional fee for increased plastic costs. At hotels, they’re asked to take shorter showers and turn off the faucet when shaving or brushing teeth.

“It really hasn’t been a burden. It’s cut down tremendously on our water usage,” Ludi said, though she noted that the restaurant’s garbage output has about tripled, and there is nowhere to send recyclables.

“Our business hasn’t slowed down. In fact, it’s increased,” she said. “My personal opinion would be it’s because they don’t want to use their water at home for fear of using too much.”

On Sept. 7, Trujllo thanked residents during a livestream for their help reducing water use. The mayor didn’t directly answer questions about the city’s water future, saying his effort is now being spent to move the city out of “Stage 7” water restrictions. 

“Once we know we have enough water, we can possibly move to another stage. However, our goal is to get everyone off ‘Stage 7’ as quickly as possible,” Trujillo said. “We do know that the winter is coming. We do have antiquated water lines that will break.”

The water crisis is just the latest issue for the historic town of 13,000, which has 900 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and is home to New Mexico Highlands University.

The biggest fire in New Mexico history – at 341,000 acres – was started by the United States Forest Service and destroyed much of the surrounding landscape. In the weeks since, floods have torn through the burn scar.

“I worry about the schools because we’ve already gone through so much, you know, with COVID, with the fires, now the flooding,” said Ludi, the mother of a high school sophomore.

City officials said the contamination could afflict drinking water for a decade, and they’ll need to spend millions on a new filtration system to ensure the water flowing from the burnt landscape is free of harmful silt.

Trujillo has placed blame for the crisis on the federal government, saying the city is billing FEMA for every bottle of water given to residents and expecting even more in reimbursements.

The risk to Las Vegas’ water supply has long been known. In 2005, the United States Department of Agriculture released an environmental assessment warning that wildfire posed a major threat to the Gallinas Watershed.

The region’s previous big wildfire — the Viveash fire in 2000 — burned 22,000 acres west of the watershed but still had “substantial impacts” on the water supply, showing up in the Las Vegas treatment plant 22 miles downstream, the report states.

“A fire of Viveash’s magnitude occurring completely in the Gallinas watershed would be disastrous for those who depend on Las Vegas’ water quality,” the 2005 report states.

Julie Tsatsaros, professor of forestry and environmental science at New Mexico Highlands University, said her students tell her they’re used to water shortages and taking steps to conserve. She’s using the crisis as a teaching moment, taking her students to see the filtration system in Storrie Lake next week.

She said the effects of climate change are so dramatic and intense that she’s not sure what could have been done to prevent Las Vegas’ current predicament.

“Climate change really has brought these hotter summers, we’ve had less precipitation, it’s been more erratic,” she said. “We’ve had drought and this really has significantly increased the wildfire chances across the Southwest.”

New Mexico focusing on seniors with COVID-19 booster rollout - Associated Press

New Mexico health officials on Thursday touted the new COVID-19 booster, along with an aggressive plan to bring it to the most vulnerable populations.

The state has announced a timeline to get the Omicron booster to seniors and residents of long-term care facilities in the next six weeks. There are around 240 assisted living facilities, 70 nursing homes and over 200 senior sites in New Mexico.

There are also plans for drive-thru clinics and to offer the flu vaccine at the same time.

Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase hopes people in general will take advantage of the new booster. If the roughly 65% of New Mexicans who routinely get a flu shot also get the booster, that would put the state at a high vaccination rate.

"I think we're going to have to play it by ear. We have seen a declining interest in the vaccine as we added new age groups," Scrase said. "I consider this 'the COVID vaccine' for 2022. I'm hoping people will hear that message and be more likely to get it with their flu shot this year than not."

Getting this latest booster will fit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's revised definition of being "up to date" on COVID-19 vaccines.

There are also no plans to end New Mexico's current COVID-19 emergency public health order. Scrase said maintaining public health emergency status enhances federal benefits for many low-income residents.

"There is very little likelihood that we will end our public health emergency before the federal government does. It would create a very, very difficult situation for the ... 970,000 some people on Medicaid in our state."

Health officials also touched on the presence of monkeypox in New Mexico. There have been 33 reported cases in the state so far. The U.S. has documented over 22,700 cases.

The first dose of the monkeypox vaccine has been administered to 1,749 New Mexicans. Only 179 have received the second dose.

Monkeypox is a viral infection that can cause painful lesions or sores. It is rarely fatal. One death has been reported in the U.S.

Jeremy Gay will appear on ballot for AG, weathering lawsuit to remove him - KUNM News, Albuquerque Journal 

Republican Jeremy Gay will appear on November’s ballot as a candidate for Attorney General.

The Albuquerque Journal reports a state judge ruled in the candidate’s favor Friday in a hearing over whether he’s been a New Mexico resident for long enough to run for the office.

The Democratic-backed complaint said Gay moved to Gallup in 2019, putting him below the five-year residency requirement.

In his ruling, Judge T. Glenn Ellington said the suit was filed too late in the election season and that removing Gay from the ballot would predetermine the outcome of the election.

Gay is running against Democrat Raúl Torrez.

New Mexico city to monitor compliance with police reforms - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The U.S. Department of Justice says New Mexico's largest city has made enough progress with court-ordered police reforms that oversight of much of the ongoing process will be turned over to Albuquerque officials.

The announcement was made Thursday with a new joint court filing that outlines what the city will be responsible for monitoring going forward. Regular reports on compliance will be required.

The Justice Department and the city reached a consent decree several years ago to overhaul the police force in response to a series of deadly shootings that pointed to patterns of excessive force, constitutional violations, and a lack of training and oversight of its officers. The terms of the agreement included new training and protocols for investigating shootings by officers.

Officials with the Justice Department and federal prosecutors said the city over the last two years has been moving in the right direction with sustained compliance for significant portions of the consent decree.

New Mexico U.S. Attorney Alexander M.M. Uballez pointed to the work of police officers as well as community advocates in reaching the milestone.

"Successful self-assessment is the cornerstone of true reform, and the Albuquerque community should expect no less," he said in a statement.

There are nearly two dozen consent decrees in place across the United States. The Justice Department has pushed to make the process more efficient and less expensive, with Attorney General Merrick Garland in September introducing budget caps and hearings after five years to determine if the agreements should end.

Republican U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico earlier this year urged Garland to end the consent decree, noting that Albuquerque had spent nearly $25 million on it, including $10 million in monitor payments, and yet the city was dealing with record homicides.

Albuquerque officials have long complained about the cost of the federal monitoring and other critics have said the consent decree has complicated reform efforts.

Police Chief Harold Medina earlier this summer acknowledged what he called "a roller coaster of successes and failures" but said recent achievements have helped improve morale and recruiting.

Medina also vowed that the city will maintain high standards as part of the self-assessment process.

"I am pleased we have finally found a light at the end of the tunnel in the reform process. We overcame many challenges to get to this point," Medina said Thursday.

Among the things Albuquerque will be self-monitoring is a multi-agency task force that investigates shootings by officers. It will also track training and policy development for specialized units, including the SWAT team, canine unit and bomb squad.

Revisions of field training for new officers and publishing information on how people can file complaints will be among Albuquerque's responsibilities.

Federal officials also said the Albuquerque Police Department has been successful so far in developing a comprehensive recruitment and hiring program. In a recent report, the federal monitor who had been tracking the city's progress noted that the department had increased interest in joining the force at a time when recruiting has become more difficult nationwide.

The department also has improved the timeliness and quality of its investigations into claims of excessive force. A contractor reviewing a backlog of internal affairs cases reported in August that much work still needed to be done but there were substantial improvements in the tone and tenor within the department's internal affairs force division.

Albuquerque also recently hired retired judge Victor Valdez as the superintendent of reform for the police department. His duties include developing the city's self-monitoring system.

Official: New Mexico horse racing still in the 'dark ages' -By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Easing rules around online betting would help ensure the survival of New Mexico's horse racing industry as it faces intensifying competition for attention from gamblers in the state and around the world, a top racing official told a panel of state lawmakers Thursday.

New Mexico law prevents residents from betting on races held at any of the state's five tracks, but they can place bets on races in neighboring Texas, California or any other state.

Track owners and horse breeders say this led to lost revenue for the multimillion-dollar industry, which has seen its economic effects — like spending on feed, fuel and labor — dwindle by nearly 25% over recent years. The decline of the industry has been more precipitous in New Mexico than in other states, with the number of races and the number of horses being bred also dropping.

Of the five people who testified Thursday, most were representatives of the industry.

Izzy Trejo, the Racing Commission's executive director, told lawmakers that horse racing has evolved beyond simple times when tracks would bank on fans turning out in person to place their bets and later via simulcast races.

"We used to be king of the hill back in the '40s, '50s and '60s. That's no longer the case," Trejo said. "There are no more golden goose eggs for horse racing. Right now we're merely going to be picking up crumbs to try to make the cookie complete with the sports wagering, online wagering, advance deposit wagering."

Trejo said that in New York, about 91% of sports wagering was done with a mobile device, and that number was slightly higher in Pennsylvania. He said the coronavirus pandemic helped to boost those numbers as more people opted to stream movies and place bets from the comfort of their homes.

"We've got to get out of the dark ages here in New Mexico," he said.

University of New Mexico economics professor David Dixon presented figures that showed the state's horse racing industry had an economic impact of about $677 million in 2016, and saw a significant decline over a 10-year period.

Dixon noted that gambling represents a transfer of wealth from one person to another, and that the real economic value comes from spending by horse owners, breeders and the tracks on feed, fuel, veterinarian services, other supplies and payroll.

His research also included statistics that showed fewer race horses were being bred and there were fewer races being held, both in New Mexico and nationwide.

Tom Goncharoff, president of the New Mexico Horse Breeders Association, said a silver lining is that horse sales have been setting records for the past two years. He pointed to a recent sale in Kentucky in which yearlings were sold for over $1 million each.

"The auction prices are through the roof," he said. "There is demand for a good horse and the money is there for a good horse, and that's encouraging."

Goncharoff also raised concerns about New Mexico leaving money on the table by not updating its sports betting laws.

Making changes in New Mexico would require renegotiation of revenue sharing agreements the state has with Native American tribes that operate casinos.

Rep. Antonio Maestas, the Albuquerque Democrat who chairs the Legislature's Economic Development and Policy Committee, said he is starting conversations with some tribal leaders about potentially reconsidering those parts of the compacts that are seen as outdated.

Purse money for New Mexico races has remained steady — between $52 million and $55 million a year — and expanding the opportunity for more online wagering would increase that figure, industry officials testified.

GOP candidate wants referendum on abortion in New Mexico - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

The Republican nominee for governor in New Mexico has proposed a statewide referendum that could place new limitations on access to abortion procedures, pitching the idea in a television ad Thursday.

Mark Ronchetti has advocated for a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for rape, incest and risk to the physical health of the mother. That's in line with a proposal this week for a nationwide abortion ban from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

"I've made my position clear: end late-term abortion," Ronchetti says in the ad, seated on a sofa alongside wife Krysty Ronchetti. "Put it on a statewide ballot so everyone gets a say."

Referendums in New Mexico are limited to proposed state constitutional amendments that can be scheduled by the Legislature, with or without the governor's consent.

New Mexico state law ensures access to abortion with few restrictions even after the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back guaranteed access in a June decision.

Incumbent Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham voiced immediate opposition to her opponent's referendum proposal.

The governor has cast herself as a staunch defender of access to abortion, signing an executive order in August that pledges $10 million to build a clinic that would provide abortion and other pregnancy care.

In a statement, Lujan Grisham spokesperson Delaney Corcoran said the governor "will oppose any attempt to undo New Mexico's progress in protecting abortion rights. She stands against Mark Ronchetti's clear attempt to ban abortion through a constitutional amendment."

In 2021, Lujan Grisham and state legislators repealed a dormant 1969 statute that outlawed most abortion procedures as felonies.

Albuquerque is home to one of only a few independent clinics in the country that perform abortions in the third trimester without conditions.

Under current state law, New Mexico can expect to continue to see a steady influx of people seeking abortions from neighboring states with more restrictive abortion laws. It already hosts patients from Texas and Oklahoma, where some of the strictest abortion bans in the country were introduced this year.

Ronchetti and Lujan Grisham have cast each other as extremists on abortion policy. Anti-abortion activist Karen Bedonie also is running for governor as the Libertarian Party nominee.

State of unease: Colorado basin tribes without water rights - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Garnett Querta slips on his work gloves as he shifts the big rig he's driving into park. Within seconds, he unrolls a fire hose and opens a hydrant, sending water flowing into one of the plastic tanks on the truck's flat bed.

His timer is set for 5 minutes, 20 seconds — when the tank will be full and he'll turn to the second one.

The water pulled from the ground here will be piped dozens of miles across rugged landscape to serve the roughly 700,000 tourists a year who visit the Grand Canyon on the Hualapai reservation in northwestern Arizona — an operation that is the tribe's main source of revenue.

Despite the Colorado River bordering more than 100 miles of Hualapai land in the canyon, the tribe can't draw from it. Native American tribes in the Colorado River basin have inherent rights to the water, but the amount and access for a dozen tribes hasn't been fully resolved, not for decades.

The 1922 Colorado River Compact that divided the water among states didn't include a share for tribes. Now that the river is shrinking because of overuse, drought and human-caused climate change, tribes want the federal government to ensure their interests are protected.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a collaborative series on the Colorado River as the 100th anniversary of the historic Colorado River Compact approaches. The Associated Press, The Colorado Sun, The Albuquerque Journal, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Arizona Daily Star and The Nevada Independent are working together to explore the pressures on the river in 2022.

A water settlement pending in Congress would give the Hualapai Tribe the right to draw river water, plus $180 million to pipe it to tribal communities and the main tourist center at Grand Canyon West.

"It was the best of a bad deal," said Phil Wisely, the tribe's public services director. "And the thing is, I don't think we could get a better deal, especially now."

The Colorado River can no longer can meet the needs of the 40 million people and $15 billion agriculture industry that depend on it. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently announced that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico would see deeper cuts to their water supply in 2023. The agency also is asking seven Western states to find a way to conserve more.

LONG-STANDING RIGHTS

The 29 tribes in the Colorado River basin are in fact among the river's most senior water rights holders, a determination often tied to the date the federal government established a reservation. Tribal water rights — once they're fully resolved — could add up to about one-quarter of the river's historic flow, according to the Water & Tribes Initiative.

Unlike other water users, tribes don't lose access to water when they don't use it. A 1908 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as the Winters Doctrine says tribes have the right to enough water to establish a permanent homeland. Often, tribes give up potentially huge water claims in exchange for an assured supply and federal funding to deliver it.

To the northeast of Hualapai, the Ute Indian Tribe has Colorado River tributaries flowing on its reservation east of Salt Lake City. While the tribe has secured some rights, not everyone agrees on how much more it should receive, delaying a settlement for decades.

Ute Indian Tribe leaders say they're tired of reiterating that the federal government needs to protect tribal interests, a duty laid out in treaties and other acts.

"Until you start to deal with the inequities or the injustice, you can never really have any momentum going forward," said Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the Ute Business Committee.

"You're not resolving that. And they are in a position to do that, they are the federal government."

The situation of both the Hualapai and Ute Indian Tribe highlights the frustration of Native American leaders across the basin that although their rights may not be quantified, they are real.

Other tribes that have secured water rights have pitched in to help their neighbors amid the prolonged drought by conserving water in key reservoirs along the Colorado River. Some lease or exchange water, and use it to sustain the environment, sometimes creating revenue for themselves.

But Jay Weiner, who represents tribes in water settlements, said it would be unjust to continue to rely heavily on tribes when they haven't had access to the water as long as states in the basin.

"The tribes have already front-loaded and sacrificed by the fact that the basin has been able to use huge amounts of water that tribes have rights to over the past 100 years," Weiner said.

In a statement to The Associated Press, the Interior Department did not say how tribal water rights, which are federal rights, would be protected as the river's flow decreases. It said it is working with tribes that are affected by drought.

HAULING WATER ON HUALAPAI LAND

Querta's job is a grind but he's well-suited for it — analytical, quick and goal-oriented. He takes meticulous notes on water levels and quality as he fills the tanks that ensure tourists at Grand Canyon West have water.

The truck takes a beating on the gravel and dirt road on multiple round trips of more than 30 miles most days. The side mirrors and back windows that rattled loose are held together by red duct tape. Querta keeps tools on hand for minor repairs. Major ones or illness can put him out of commission.

He was out for two weeks because of COVID-19 last year and had no replacement.

"I didn't mind because I didn't want anybody to mess up my truck or my tanks," said Querta. "I take care of this truck like it's mine."

Once he's filled the tanks on the truck bed, the water is sent through a pipeline from just outside of Peach Springs to Grand Canyon West. The tourist center is crucial. Revenue from it funds tribal programs for the elderly, public works, the cultural center, scholarships and other social services. The main attraction is the Grand Canyon Skywalk — a horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that gives tourists a view of the Colorado River 4,000 feet below.

There is not a drop to spare at Grand Canyon West. A restaurant that overlooks the Grand Canyon has waterless urinals in the restrooms and faucets with sensors. Customers are served bottled water and food in disposable containers with plastic utensils, cutting out most of dish washing.

Even if the Hualapai eventually get water from the Colorado River, those practices will stay in place, said operations manager Alvaro Cobia-Ruesga.

"We see what's going on, we have to conserve water for our future," he said.

The tribe has long planned to expand Grand Canyon West with a store, fire and police station, housing and elementary school to serve tribal members who ride a shuttle up to five hours round trip daily from Peach Springs and surrounding communities to their jobs there.

But without a secure source of water for Grand Canyon West, it won't happen, said tribal Chairman Damon Clarke. Under the settlement pending in Congress, the tribe would be responsible for building out the infrastructure to deliver water.

"One of the biggest things with our settlement is hope for the future and getting this not for us at this time but for the generations ahead," Clarke said.

Part of the reason the Hualapai Tribe did not prioritize discussions on water rights long ago is because tribal members believed that water came with their land, said Rory Majenty, board chairman of the Grand Canyon Resort Corp. that oversees Grand Canyon West.

"We took things for granted," he said. "Like you knew you were going to eat, you knew the sun was going to come up. Tomorrow is another day."

The settlement has its critics, including Hualapai rancher Clay Bravo. He said the tribe should wait, negotiate a better deal and develop groundwater resources at the same time. He's not satisfied with a lower priority water right that he equates to crumbs, given the Hualapai Tribe has been on the land since time immemorial.

"How can we run a race and come in first and get the fourth-place trophy?" Bravo said, leaning against a pickup truck on a rocky road overlooking an old water well that was contaminated with radium.

Even with secure water rights, tribes can't always fully put the water to use because they lack infrastructure. A pipeline eventually will reach the southwestern portion of the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico through another tribe's water settlement to boost economic development in the region. Jicarilla Apache has leased water it already has access to for energy production, recreation and conservation, and to benefit threatened and endangered fish. Tribes in the Phoenix area have leased water to nearby cities.

The Colorado River Indian Tribes, whose reservation sits along the river bordering Arizona and California, doesn't have the legal authority to lease its water, though a bill is pending in Congress to authorize it.

"It's our sovereignty and beneficial rights of our water — the full beneficial rights of our water," said tribal Chairwoman Amelia Flores. "We want to lease, we don't want to sell our water, and that's the difference."

WHAT IS JUST?

The Ute Indian Tribe wants that same ability. The tribe asserts rights to 550,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is enough water to serve two to three U.S. households annually). A 30-year-old settlement recognizes about half of that.

"Utah's position is that's the number we're comfortable with, and we think that does more than enough to satisfy the claims of the Utes," said Utah deputy state engineer Jared Manning.

But the tribe hasn't ratified the settlement as it was presented in Congress. The Utes have sued in federal court over access to water. A judge ruled in one case last year that the tribe waited too long to bring some of its claims against the federal government and Utah, but the case isn't over.

Daniel McCool, professor emeritus at the University of Utah, said the larger question is whether the Ute Indian Tribe has been treated justly and whether funding for water diversions have been on par with non-Native American interests.

"There's a reason why the tribe doesn't have much water and why almost all the water in the region is being used by white people," said McCool, who studies tribal water rights. "Look at who got the money, the Central Utah Project. Who got the water? Ask yourself that and ask, 'does this look fair to you?'"

It's a question tribal members have posed for decades, whether the first inhabitants of what's now the U.S. should have anything but the oldest, most secure water rights. Inevitably, others will lose water they've grown accustomed to using as tribes gain access to it.

"People have been taking our water. Are they taking it legally or illegally?" Majenty said.

"The argument from the other side is it's capitalism, free enterprise. That's where they got us. Ownership is where it's at. Until you have a piece of paper, it's not yours."