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THURS: Interior says $580M headed to 15 tribes to fulfill water rights, + More

The San Juan River near Navajo Dam, New Mexico, Aug. 23, 2015.
Phil Slattery
Wikimedia Commons
The San Juan River near Navajo Dam, New Mexico, Aug. 23, 2015.

Interior: $580M headed to 15 tribes to fulfill water rights - By Suman Naishadham Associated Press

Fifteen Native American tribes will get a total of $580 million in federal money this year for water rights settlements, the Biden administration announced Thursday.

The money will help carry out the agreements that define the tribes' rights to water from rivers and other sources and pay for pipelines, pumping stations, and canals that deliver it to reservations.

"Water rights are crucial to ensuring the health, safety and empowerment of Tribal communities," U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement Thursday that acknowledged the decades many tribes have waited for the funding.

Access to reliable, clean water and basic sanitation facilities on tribal lands remains a challenge across many Native American reservations.

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 senior to others' in the West, where competition over the dwindling resource is often fierce.

But in many cases, details about those water rights were not specified and have had to be determined in the modern era.

Many tribes opted for settlements because litigation over water can be expensive and drawn out, with negotiations involving states, cities, private water users, local water districts and others that can take years, if not decades.

Of the funding announced Thursday, $460 million comes from the $2.5 billion set aside for Native American water rights settlements in the Biden administration's infrastructure bill. A federal fund created by Congress in 2009 to pay for water rights settlements will contribute the other $120 million.

About $157 million will go to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana. The federal government signed the tribes' water rights compact in 2021 and promised over the following decade to fund the rebuilding of an irrigation project on the Flathead Indian Reservation constructed in the 1900s.

Interior said Thursday's funding was part of the $1.9 billion trust created when Haaland signed the tribes' compact.

The Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, will receive $137 million for an ongoing project to bring drinking water to members in northwestern New Mexico and the city of Gallup. The project, expected to be completed in 2027, is a network of pipelines and pumping stations that will deliver treated water from the San Juan River, which flows through the deserts of northwestern New Mexico.

About $39 million is headed to the Navajo Nation for a separate settlement that will fund drinking water infrastructure in San Juan County, a part of the 27,000-square-mile reservation that is in Utah.

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren, in a statement, called water the tribe's "most critical resource" and said it was "time to move forward" with both infrastructure projects.

The Gila River Indian Community in Arizona will get $79 million this year, which the tribe's Gov. Stephen Lewis said would help its water conservation efforts amid stubborn drought in the West. The funding will help finish construction of an irrigation system on the reservation.

Lewis said the funding was also a nod to the "role that tribal governments ... play in being good stewards for our water and other natural resources."

Elsewhere, the Blackfeet Nation in Montana will receive $45 million for a settlement that was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2016 and called for improvements to irrigation systems and the development of a community water system.

The Crow Nation, San Carlos Apache Nation, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ak-Chin Indian Community and Pueblos of San Ildefonso, Nambe, Pojoaque, and Tesuque are among other tribes sharing in the money announced Thursday.

Court: US needs to consider effects of drilling near Chaco - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A federal appeals court has sided with environmentalists, ruling that the U.S. government failed to consider the cumulative effects of greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the approval of nearly 200 drilling permits in an area surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Home to numerous sites significant to Native American tribes, the region has been a focal point of conflict over energy development that has spanned multiple presidential administrations. Now, environmentalists and some tribal leaders have accused the Biden administration of "rubber-stamping" more drilling.

In a ruling issued Wednesday, a three-judge panel for the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that federal land managers violated the law by not accounting for the direct, indirect and cumulative effects of air pollution from oil and gas drilling.

The court also put on hold the approval of additional drilling permits pending a decision from a lower court.

Kyle Tisdel, a senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, accused the Bureau of Land Management of prioritizing oil and gas extraction at the expense of those who live in northwestern New Mexico, including many Navajo communities.

"Frontline Diné communities and their allies were vindicated today in a step toward environmental justice. We will continue to demand justice, and that their water, health and the climate stop being sacrificed to big oil profits," Tisdel said in a statement.

Environmentalists have long complained about pollution from increased drilling, but the fight took on new urgency when Native American tribes began raising concerns that a spider web of drill pads, roads, processing stations and other infrastructure was compromising culturally significant sites beyond Chaco park's boundaries.

The Bureau of Land Management had an informal process of not leasing land within 10 miles of Chaco park to address those concerns.

During the Obama administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the first time joined federal land managers in planning how to manage resources. Following a visit by then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt during the Trump administration, oil and gas leasing within a certain distance of the park was put on hold.

Now, the U.S. Interior Department is considering formalizing the 10-mile buffer around the park, putting off limits to future development of more than 507 square miles of federal mineral holdings.

As part of the effort, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — a member of Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to lead a U.S. Cabinet agency — wants to create a system for including tribal perspectives and values when land management decisions are made.

She first detailed the steps her agency would be taking during a visit to Chaco park in November 2021. That process is ongoing.

Much of the land surrounding the park belongs to the Navajo Nation or is owned by individual Navajos. While the federal government's planned 20-year withdrawal would not affect tribal lands, the Navajo Nation and allottees have expressed concerns about being landlocked and losing out on leasing revenue and royalties.

There are about 23,000 active oil and gas wells in the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico. The BLM is required to approve an application for permit to drill before a developer can begin work. As part of that process, the agency typically prepares a site-specific environmental assessment to determine whether the project will have significant environmental effects.

The judges noted their review was limited to only those applications for permits to drill that had already been approved by the Bureau of Land Management, not pending applications.

While the Bureau of Land Management's analysis of potential impacts to water resources was sufficient, the court noted that the agency was unreasonable in using one year of direct emissions to represent total emissions over the 20-year lifespan of a well.

It will be up to a lower court to decide how the agency can fix deficiencies in the environmental assessments that sparked the legal challenge.

Eye drops linked to US drug-resistant bacteria outbreak - By Mike Stobbe AP Medical Writer

U.S. health officials are advising people to stop using over-the-counter eye drops that have been linked to an outbreak of drug-resistant infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday night sent a health alert to physicians, saying the outbreak includes at least 55 people in 12 states. One died.

Disease investigators have linked the infections, including some found in blood, urine and lungs, to EzriCare Artificial Tears. Many of the patients said they had used the product, which is a lubricant used to treat irritation and dryness.

The infections were all caused by a bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Investigators detected that kind of bacteria in open EzriCare bottles, but further testing was underway to see if the strains matched.

EzriCare said it is not aware of any evidence definitively linking the outbreak to the product, but that it has stopped distributing the eye drops. It also has a notice on its website urging consumers to stop using the drops.

"To the greatest extent possible, we have been contacting customers to advise them against continued use of the product. We also immediately reached out to both CDC and FDA and indicated our willingness to cooperate with any requests they may have of us," the company said.

Two weeks ago, the CDC warned medical professional societies about the possible connection between the drops and the infections. The Wednesday alert was a broader, more public warning.

Infections were diagnosed in patients in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin. One patient — in Washington — died with a blood infection. At least five others suffered permanent vision loss.

The outbreak is considered particularly worrisome because the bacteria driving it are resistant to standard antibiotics.

Investigators found the bacteria were not susceptible to any antibiotics routinely tested at public health laboratories. However, a newer antibiotic named cefiderocol did seem to work.

How could eye drops cause infections in the blood or lungs? The eye connects to the nasal cavity through the tear ducts. Bacteria can move from the nasal cavity into the lungs. Also, bacteria in these parts of the body can seed infections at other sites such as in the blood or wounds, CDC officials said.

The product is manufactured in India by Global Pharma Healthcare Pvt Ltd., EzriCare said.

Northern wildfire recovery legislation heads to N.M. Senate - By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

Local counties that can’t afford to rebuild after New Mexico’s largest blaze are a step closer to getting help to do so. Legislation that would provide financial aid to affected counties unanimously passed through Senate Finance, its second committee, on Wednesday. It’s heading for a vote by the full Senate.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Recovery Funds bill would dedicate $100 million from the state’s General Fund to northern local governments via zero-interest loans. Connected to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance Program, counties would pay for repairs upfront, then FEMA’s reimbursements would go back to the state.

“This devastating loss and destruction from these fires will take generations for rural northern New Mexican communities to fully recover and rebuild,” said the measure’s sponsor Rep. Ambrose Castellano (D-Las Vegas).

Ali Rye is deputy secretary of the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. She said this bill would allow northern communities to start rebuilding public infrastructure like roads, bridges and culverts. It could also be used for acequias, she added, whose stewards have been struggling to get recovery funds.

Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup) said the state is stepping up to get this money out because of the delay getting federal money to northern New Mexico.

Rye said it could take up to a year for applicants to start to get the billions Congress allocated last year.


Some senators asked why this bill can’t be broader to also apply to other burns in the state — for instance, the massive Black Fire in southern New Mexico that burned simultaneously last year. But Rye said this legislation is specific to the Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon Fire reimbursement program from FEMA, which other fires aren’t eligible for.

The U.S. Forest Service is responsible for that blaze. The Black Fire’s cause is still being investigated.

Campos said this exclusivity also makes the bill less complicated and could expedite its passage.

Sens. Siah Correa Hemphill (D-Silver City) and Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) represent counties impacted by the southern fire. They said other fire victims need to be made whole as well. Sen. William Sharer (R-Farmington) tried to amend the bill so any wildfires started by the federal government would be eligible, though he withdrew his amendment during the committee hearing before the vote.

Muñoz later said he doesn’t like when lawmakers criticize or try to change bills so significantly in Senate Finance.

“Legislators can work on any piece of legislation that they want, and all of a sudden we get here, and they find a piece of legislation that they like,” he said. “They had fires in their districts, so they have that ability to start working on stuff sooner and not just wait.”

N.M. prison officials seek funding for hundreds of vacant guard positions - By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

A panel of House lawmakers on Tuesday honored a request by the head of the state prison system and the governor to keep paying for hundreds of guard positions that have sat empty for years, against the recommendation of their own analysts.

In its proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the Legislative Finance Committee recommended cutting 309 empty jobs from the New Mexico Corrections Department’s budget.

“The recommendation recognizes chronically vacant correctional officer positions are not necessary in light of substantial reductions in inmate population,” analysts wrote. Reducing the number of CO jobs that are authorized for state prisons could redistribute that $23 million elsewhere in the budget, they said.

Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero and other high-ranking officials in the department met with the House Appropriations and Finance Committee on Tuesday to discuss the state prison system’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins in July.

The department employs about 2,300 people, Tafoya Lucero said. About 28% of the agency’s total guard positions were empty over the course of fiscal year 2022, according to the LFC, with an even higher vacancy rate among private prison guards at 32%.

The LFC’s proposed cut would still leave in place about 100 vacant guard jobs, which would average out to between 10 and 12 per prison, Fiscal Analyst Brendon Gray said.

However, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration recommended keeping the empty spots funded, and Tafoya Lucero said she needs those positions for what she anticipates will be an increase in criminal prosecutions in the coming years.

Secretary Tafoya Lucero asked the committee to adopt the executive branch’s recommendations and not the LFC’s.

“The executive recommendation is in alignment with our agency priorities,” she said.

She said she is “terribly concerned” about what the loss of those 309 vacant guard jobs would mean for the department. “We would essentially stop progressing at this point forward, right?”

For example, Tafoya Lucero said the Corrections Department has 41 cadets in its latest class of prison guards, bigger than previous years, which saw 15 or 20 graduates.

“The executive believes that would pose a number of issues — administratively and otherwise — for the department, if that reduction in FTE was adopted,” Gray said.

Tafoya Lucero acknowledged the department is using the money set aside for those empty positions to raise salaries for the guards they do have.

Minority Whip Rep. Rod Montoya (R-Farmington) suggested Tafoya Lucero meet with LFC Director David Abbey about the issue of shifting money that was destined for positions the department couldn’t fill to pay for raises “offline,” or without a public process.

“This budget is really not a good budget, because we are using the extra FTE positions to cover our pay increases, and I’m just not comfortable with that,” Montoya said.

The LFC recommended $2.9 million to provide raises to guards, while the governor’s budget recommended $3.1 million for the pay increases. The higher amount of funding from the executive’s recommendation is meant to provide the department “more flexibility to address compensation and recruitment, and retaining of correctional officers as they see fit,” Gray said.

Pay boosts for guards, Tafoya Lucero said, is about offering competitive, fair and equitable pay.

Ultimately, Committee Vice Chair Rep. Meredith Dixon (D-Albuquerque) moved to adopt the executive branch’s budget recommendation. Montoya was the only opposing vote on the committee.


New Mexico operates eight state-owned prisons, and three prisons owned by other governments or private corporations, with a total capacity of 5,745 beds.

The state government also contracts with private prison operators to run two facilities with a capacity of 1,900 beds, analysts found in March 2022.

They’re about 70% occupied, according to a rough estimate from Corrections Department officials.

The state-owned prisons are, on average, 40 years old, with a lot of maintenance being deferred, according to the LFC. The prison buildings require $250,000,000 in repairs the analysts estimated.

Prison officials have moved incarcerated people between prisons in Santa Fe, Santa Rosa, Clayton, Springer and Los Lunas, and have closed certain parts of some prisons for repairs, Tafoya Lucero said.

If the Legislature takes away the 309 empty positions now, Tafoya Lucero said, “essentially we would have to leave all of those areas closed, and we would not be able to accommodate the — what we anticipate seeing is an increase in prosecutions.”


As of Tuesday, there were about 5,300 people held in state prisons in New Mexico, Tafoya Lucero said.

Prisons saw 2% more admissions so far in fiscal year 2022, following years of prison populations steadily shrinking in the state.

Prison populations in New Mexico dropped nearly every month for more than three years, legislative researchers found, but that decrease has been slowing. Despite an uptick in new admissions, population numbers are still down.

Tafoya Lucero said much of the decline has been “driven by some of the larger judicial districts and the prosecution rates” within the state’s court system. She pointed to the largest one, the Second Judicial District in Albuquerque, which “primarily feeds our institutions and creates the number of intakes coming in.”

There are also as many as 15,000 people outside the walls who are on state probation or parole, analysts found in March 2022.

The LFC also recommended increasing the department’s budget by 1.5% overall, including $1 million to start using evidence-based recidivism programs, though the Corrections Department did not ask for additional money for recidivism reduction programming, analysts noted.

The Legislative Finance committee also sought $500,000 for rental assistance for people being released from prison who are unhoused, money for digitizing incarcerated people’s official prison records, and more money for private prison companies that work in the state so payment is in line with the Consumer Price Index.

Tafoya Lucero said we can’t predict the future size of the state prison population, but she’s expecting more prisoners.

“I would anticipate that we will see a continued increase in the number of people that are entering into the prison system,” Tafoya Lucero said, “And I want to make sure that we’re able to accommodate that by having enough staff in place at all of our institutions so that if we need to reopen all of those wings, that we are able to do that.”

Man convicted of killing stranger on an Albuquerque freeway - Associated Press

An Albuquerque man has been convicted of fatally shooting a stranger as the two men were driving separate vehicles on Interstate 40 nearly four years ago.

A 2nd Judicial District Court jury on Wednesday found 54-year-old Donald Duquette guilty of second-degree murder.

He was accused of firing multiple shots from his pickup truck and one of the shots fatally struck 45-year-old Jose Ruben Diaz in July 2019.

Prosecutors say Diaz was unarmed and Duquette faces up to 16 years in prison.

His sentencing hearing hasn't been scheduled yet.

Duquette's attorney told jurors that his client fired the gunshots in self defense after Diaz attempted to ram his car into Duquette's vehicle.

But the Albuquerque Journal reported that according to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court, Duquette told police he became paranoid after smoking methamphetamine before the shooting.

Bill advances that would ban guns at polls in New Mexico — Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A bill that would prohibit firearms at New Mexico polling places during elections with exceptions for police officers cleared its first hurdle at the Legislature on Wednesday.

A Senate panel voted 6-3 along party lines, with Republicans in opposition, to advance the bill from Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe. A second committee endorsement could send the bill to a full Senate vote.

New Mexico already prohibits guns on school grounds, where many election polls are located. But firearms can be carried at many other polling locations, openly or with a concealed-handgun permit.

Under the proposed changes, New Mexico would join at least 12 other states that prohibit guns and weapons at polling places, including neighboring Texas and Arizona.

Wirth said he heard concerns from constituents in his district about firearms at polls during the 2022 election cycle, including one person who decided to stop working at the polls because people were bringing guns with them to vote.

"I just don't think guns and elections mix," Wirth said. "What we're trying to do is keep guns out of polling places."

Guns would be prohibited within 100 feet (30 meters) of any polling location.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca of Belen voted against the measure and said he preferred that poll workers be able to carry a gun as a defense against people who might flout the restrictions.

GOP Sen. Mark Moores of Albuquerque unsuccessfully suggested an amendment that would allow people with concealed-handgun permits to bring their guns to the polls.

He said those gun carriers might leave there gun in the car where it could be stolen while voting.

Additional gun-control proposals would ban assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips, amid staunch opposition to the restrictions from Republican legislators.

State aroma bill passes its first sniff test in the NM Legislature — Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico

What smell comes to mind when you think of New Mexico?

Is it the fresh rain rolling off Sandia Mountains? Is it alfalfa cut for harvest outside Roswell? Perhaps it’s the mercaptan added to the otherwise odorless smell from natural gas production in the Four Corners, or the waft of cows on the eastside of New Mexico.

Those last two might be more of a stank.

The flavor in the Land of Enchantment starts at green — even red chile is green to begin with — so it makes sense that lawmakers are weighing whether to make green chile the state’s official aroma. Specifically, it’s that smell of roasting chile that draws people every fall to parking lots across New Mexico.

That sweet, spicy aroma that brings watering mouths and nostalgia for home.

Senate Bill 188 passed its first sniff test on Tuesday, wafting with unanimous approval through the Senate Indian, Rural, and Cultural Affairs Committee in Santa Fe.

Sen. William Soules (D-Las Cruces) garnered multi-generational support for the bill during public comment.

First, a classroom of fifth graders from Monte Vista Elementary School in Las Cruces spoke over Zoom, petitioning lawmakers to pass their bill during this 60-day session.

The class said they had meetings with Soules before the session to talk about laws that represent cultural heritage in the state, such as the official bird (roadrunner), state cookie (biscochito), or state question (red or green?).

As the students understood how something like that becomes law, they asked why there is not an official smell. At the same time, the class researched the agricultural impact chile has in their community, and their curiosity led them to lobby Soules to sponsor the green chile aroma bill.

“It’s going to be statewide and could increase tourism,” a student in the class testified before the committee. “It’ll help local farmers and farming green chilies. This will make lifestyle (in New Mexico) a lot better.”

Las Cruces Mayor Pro-Tem Kasandra Gandara said there was some criticism that the aroma bill was “a waste of time” for lawmakers. She responded that fifth graders can learn civic policy in class, but being able to be a part of a real-world scenario — and potentially change state law — is a lasting experience.

“This is so exciting to have the fifth grade elementary students take part in their state and participate in what it’s like to form a bill, to stand up on behalf of a bill, and this is really what this is about,” she said. “And we need to be able to do more of this.”

A representative from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture also spoke in favor of the measure, evoking “the longings when you’re away from home and the comfort that green chile provides, as an aroma and a taste.”

The Financial Impact Report on the bill does affirm the students’ reasoning that this could help tourism in the state and help to give New Mexico staunch advancement in the Chile Verde Wars against Colorado.

“New Mexico has consistently lower visitation rates than neighboring Colorado, which reported 84.2 million visitors in 2021 compared to approximately 40 million visitors to New Mexico in the same year,” legislative analysts wrote. “The new state aroma could help draw visitors away from Colorado, which, for some reason, thinks it has green chile comparable to that of New Mexico.”

With that burn from Roundhouse researchers, and with the committee’s support, the young lobbyists from Las Cruces are on their way to obtaining something many adults fail to get: a legislative victory in Santa Fe.