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MON: Work begins to clear acequias following northern NM fire, + More

This March 1, 2023, image provided by the New Mexico Department of Transportation shows silt filling the Acequia de Cañoncito from bank to bank near the community of Cleveland, N.M. Crews on Monday, March 6, 2023, began using heavy equipment to remove the debris deposited in the earthen irrigation canal from post-wildfire flooding. The work is usually done by hand by community members each spring but the damage this year was too severe.
John Romero/AP
New Mexico Department of Transportation
This March 1, 2023, image provided by the New Mexico Department of Transportation shows silt filling the Acequia de Cañoncito from bank to bank near the community of Cleveland, N.M. Crews on Monday, March 6, 2023, began using heavy equipment to remove the debris deposited in the earthen irrigation canal from post-wildfire flooding. The work is usually done by hand by community members each spring but the damage this year was too severe.

Work begins to clear water canals following New Mexico fire - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

It's tradition in New Mexico's rural communities — to gather with neighbors each spring, shovels and rakes in hand, to clean the earthen irrigation canals that will direct snowmelt from the surrounding mountains to crops, gardens and orchards.

Doing the job in the traditional way — by hand — is nearly impossible this year because dozens of the irrigation systems known as acequias are choked with ash, silt and other debris from flooding that followed the largest wildfire in New Mexico's history — a conflagration sparked last year by the federal government during prescribed burn operations.

The flames swept across more than 530 square miles of the Rocky Mountain foothills and burned for months, destroying homes and livelihoods.

While recovery is expected to take generations, work to clear the first acequia through a special effort led by the state Department of Transportation and local contractors began Monday near Cleveland, a mountain village southeast of Taos. There are about dozen more acequias on the list.

Crews are using excavators to dig out debris after firefighters spent a day clearing brush from the banks to provide access. Vacuum trucks are cleaning out culverts.

The equipment operators must have a light touch. Digging too deep could damage soil at the bottom that has become so tightly packed over decades that it keeps water from leaching out.

Engineers with the Federal Emergency Management Agency walked the acequia three times, using GPS to map it and to survey damage that stretches more than two-thirds of a mile.

"I'm so excited," said Barbara Bradshaw, a commissioner on the Acequia de Cañoncito who has spent months making phone calls and sending letters in search of a path to get the repairs done as soon as possible. "We've already lost one crop year."

Congress has approved billions of dollars in recovery funds for the area, but it will take time for the money to trickle down. New Mexico lawmakers also are considering legislation this year that would provide a funding stream for acequias in case of another natural disaster, given that the groups have limited resources due to their grassroots nature.

More than 30 families depend on the Acequia de Cañoncito, which is fed by a couple of canyons that originate in parts of the mountain range that were severely burned. Ash and silt rushed from the hillsides during last summer's rainy season, clogging a diversion point for the irrigation system and culverts beyond that.

"Parts of the acequia are filled bank to bank and it looks like a path instead of an acequia. And we don't know what's under the mud and ash — how many trees are in there, how many rocks are in there," Bradshaw said. "The force of the water was just remarkable."

John Romero, a division director with the state Transportation Department, described the material that needs to be removed as blackish muck. He said the work will take at least a couple of weeks and the list of acequias requesting help could grow given the scope of the damage.

"Everybody involved is very exhausted from it and they continue to do work," he said of what has been a nearly yearlong ordeal for the communities scattered through the burn scar. "These kinds of events are so taxing on everyone."

And it likely won't be the end of it, Bradshaw said, wondering what this summer's rains might bring down from the hills.

Voters could decide if New Mexico lawmakers get a salary - Associated Press

The state House has endorsed a plan to ask voters to end New Mexico's status as the only state without a salaried Legislature.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the plan won approval Saturday, largely along party lines with Democrats in favor.

The newspaper said the plan would amend the New Mexico Constitution to establish a citizen commission that would set a salary for the state's 112 lawmakers.

The measure will go before voters next year if the Senate agrees to the plan in the final two weeks of this year's session that ends on March 18.

Members of the Legislature now draw per diem payments during legislative sessions and for meetings in the interim, receive mileage reimbursements and can participate in a retirement plan, but they don't get a year-round salary.

Republican Rep. James Townsend of Artesia said lawmakers are "generously gifted with a retirement package."

The Journal said a legislator with 10 years of service could receive about $17,000 a year in retirement, according to an example calculated by the state's pension system. Participation costs about $600 a year in member contributions.

The legislation debated Saturday wouldn't set a particular salary, the Journal said, adding that a nine-member citizen commission would instead determine the salaries with the extra pay starting in mid-2026.

New Mexico bill advances to keep guns away from children - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A New Mexico bill that would make it a crime to store firearms in places that children could access cleared a major hurdle with the endorsement of the state Senate on Friday.

New Mexico is among the top 10 states for firearms deaths per capita. Earlier this year, a 6-year-old student in Virginia shot his teacher, which renewed debates across the country about gun control and school safety.

The New Mexico bill from Democratic sponsors including Senate President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque advanced on a 24-16, party-line vote, with Republicans in opposition. House concurrence with recent amendments is needed to send the bill to supportive Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The bill would make it a crime to store a firearm in a way that negligently disregards the ability of a child or teenager under age 18 to access it. Criminal charges could be brought only if the minor later brandishes or displays the firearm in a threatening way, or uses it to kill or injure someone. The proposal would establish both misdemeanor and felony crimes, with penalties of up to 18 months in prison.

Stewart said she believes the initiative will reduce gun-related deaths and injuries among youths.

"These child-prevention laws do work," she said. "Twenty-three states do have them, including our neighbors in Texas. There is evidence that they reduce the number of children killed or injured unintentionally."

Exemptions from prosecution include instances when a firearm is kept in a location that a reasonable person would believe to be secure, as well as when a juvenile obtains a firearm in the course of self-defense or defense of another person.

Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell expressed doubt that the bill would be effective and emphasized that gun owners should be able to access firearms readily to defend their homes and families.

"It's important to me to have the firearm accessible," he said. "I'm going to defend my family and I'm going to raise my children to understand that firearms are not toys."

The Democratic-led Legislature is advancing legislation that would establish a 14-day waiting period for firearm purchases and raise the minimum age to buy certain guns to 21. Lawmakers have until noon on March 18 to send bills to the governor.

Nomination of Native American leader in New Mexico in limbo - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico's Democratic governor says she believes vetting of her Cabinet members is crucial. But with two weeks left in the legislative session, she has yet to submit her pick to lead the state Indian Affairs Department to the Senate for confirmation.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's nomination of James Mountain has sent shockwaves through tribal communities, particularly among advocates dedicated to stemming the tide of violence and missing persons cases in Indian Country.

That's because Mountain, a former San Ildefonso Pueblo governor, once was indicted on charges that included criminal sexual penetration, kidnapping and aggravated battery of a household member. The charges were dropped in 2010, with prosecutors saying they did not have enough evidence to go to trial.

Native American women who spoke to The Associated Press say they've been told by some in their communities to stay quiet about the appointment, but they refuse.

"I think relationships are at risk right now that have taken generations for us to build," said Angel Charley, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. "And while we understand the pain and division that this is causing, it's important to remember that it's not the women who are bringing this up who are causing the division. We are simply highlighting a concern."

It's much like the narrative surrounding a nationwide movement to confront the disproportionate numbers of missing and slain Indigenous women and how women themselves are being asked to solve a problem they didn't create, said Christina M. Castro, a founding member of the social justice organization Three Sisters Collective.

"We're not only being tasked with taking this on, but we're villainized for speaking up," Castro said.

The governor's office said in a statement Thursday night that it was prioritizing sending appointments for university regents to the Senate during the final days of the legislative session, since regents cannot work without being confirmed.

Mountain still can serve as head of Indian Affairs without confirmation. If no hearing takes place before the Legislature ends March 18, the next likely opportunity for the full Senate to vote on confirming him wouldn't come until January 2024.

A request made a week ago on behalf of the state's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force to meet with the governor went unanswered, and many state elected officials have remained mum about the governor's choice not to push for a hearing.

Advocates call the silence deafening.

"It's really up to the governor at this point to do the right thing and to recognize the pain and hurt it's creating and look for other nominees who can do the job," said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, a member of the task force. "And there's plenty of New Mexicans out there from different tribal nations who can do this job."

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren outlined his concerns in a letter sent to Lujan Grisham this week.

"Governor, I greatly appreciate your strong advocacy on behalf of the Navajo and Indigenous people of New Mexico and across the country," he wrote. "However, on this particular issue, I must stand with our leadership and my people whose voices are so often unheard on concerns like this."

The governor has defended Mountain's nomination, saying those who disagree should respect that charges against him were dismissed. Lujan Grisham spokesperson Maddy Hayden said substantiated allegations against someone in a leadership position would be cause for concern and, likely, disqualification.

"We are certainly not in receipt of any such allegations nor is anyone else, to our knowledge," Hayden wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "We would strongly encourage anyone with substantiated allegations to bring them to light."

Mountain has not directly addressed the concerns about his nomination, but he has defended himself, telling the online outlet New Mexico in Depth that he dedicated himself to reestablishing connections and confidence among tribal communities.

The Indian Affairs Department declined Friday to share details of Mountain's vision for the agency but pointed to a letter of support from his daughter, Leah Mountain, that was directed to state lawmakers. She described a devoted father who instilled cultural identity, confidence and aspiration in her after her mother left.

She said the allegations against him are false.

"It has been painful for only half of this story to be told," she wrote.

For some Native American women, trusting the judicial system as the governor has suggested and having a platform from which to raise their concerns have been challenges. Task force members have countless stories about families who are left to search for loved ones when law enforcement didn't.

Having an advocate overseeing Indian Affairs who can relate to survivors and families who are missing relatives would create a pathway for Native women's voices to be heard, said Ashley Sarracino, president of the Laguna Pueblo Federation of Democratic Women.

While she comes from a family that empowers women, not everyone has that support, she said.

"A lot of the women are silent," she said. "A lot of the women experience oppression and, you know, they're just not willing to speak up," she said.

State committee approves $21M for fire relief funds in SW New Mexico and Ruidoso - Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico 

A few minutes of discussions by the Senate Finance Committee on Friday led to legislation moving forward that would allocate more than $21 million to fire recovery efforts in southern New Mexico.

Two bills are aiming to get disaster relief funds on the ground to help those affected by the Black Fire in southwest New Mexico and the McBride Fire in Ruidoso. Both pieces of legislation passed the Senate Conservation Committee on Feb. 16 and are headed to the full floor now.

More than $15 million is the difference between the bills. While this would support southern New Mexico, the Black Fire happened hundreds of miles west of the McBride Fire and included public infrastructure destruction that shows differences between the communities.

Lawmakers want to allocate around $18 million for relief efforts from the McBride Fire and $3 million Black Fire victims.

The Black Fire was the second-largest wildfire recorded in the state’s history, igniting more than 325,000 acres in the Gila National Forest. The McBride Fire lit just over 6,000 acres in Lincoln County, hitting the Village of Ruidoso.

The McBride blaze burned in a much more populated area than the Black Fire. Bill sponsor Sen. William Burt (R-Alamogordo) said the disaster wrecked hundreds of buildings, many homes and did significant damage to water and sewer systems.

He said there are four bridges that need to be replaced, one that’s a primary feeder to the high school.

“It’s a fair amount of money, but we need to move this so that the community can recover,” Burt said.

The legislation doesn’t currently have an emergency clause, a requirement to get money immediately to Ruidoso and Lincoln County if this legislation is signed by the governor. If it gets through the Roundhouse, it will go into effect on June 16, right in the middle of another fire season.

The Black Fire bill does have an emergency clause that allows the money to get to the southwestern New Mexico communities quickly, according to the bill sponsor, Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill (D-Silver City). Correa Hemphill has said those dollars can help local counties, acequia stewards and private landowners recover.

People affected by the Black Fire have said they need money from the state to help fix acequia systems that move water to crops and livestock. That work has been delayed and needs to start now. Stewards have said financial aid can help with recovery work.

“They sustained a lot of damage to those ditches,” Correa Hemphill said. “And their farms, their ranches are dependent upon the ditches.”

Jury acquits former Navajo official in COVID testing case - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

A Navajo Nation jury on Friday acquitted the tribe's former top financial officer of charges that she misrepresented information about a company hired to do rapid COVID-19 testing on the reservation.

Former Controller Pearline Kirk was tried on one count of obtaining a signature by deception, and two counts each of paying or receiving Navajo Nation funds for services not rendered and falsification.

"I felt pretty comfortable that we won, but until you hear the words, 'not guilty,' you just never know," her attorney David Jordan said. "A lot of tears, a lot of relief. She's really been through a lot the last couple of years. This is a pretty big vindication."

The Navajo Nation Department of Justice alleged Kirk violated the law in advising the tribal government to hire Agile Technologies Group LLC., to conduct rapid testing based on a recommendation from Kirk's longtime mentor and confidant.

The department alleged the company wasn't qualified, but received more than $3 million for pandemic-related services, including testing for about 110 employees in the controller's office. The funding came from the Navajo Nation's share of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act money.

Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said Friday she was disappointed with the verdict.

"Nonetheless, my resolve to demand integrity and accountability from our public officials on behalf of the Navajo people remains absolute," she said in a text message to The Associated Press. "We will use this as a learning opportunity to strengthen our response to abuses of authority and white collar crime, and reestablish the Navajo Nation Public Integrity Task Force to minimize waste, fraud and abuse on the Nation."

The complaints against Kirk were filed in Window Rock District Court. The two-week trial took place at the tribal court in Crownpoint, New Mexico. Navajo Nation's vast reservation extends into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.

Jury trials on the Navajo Nation — the largest Native American reservation in the U.S. — are rare, even more so now because the courts still aren't open to the public because of COVID protections. In January, the Navajo Nation rescinded the last of its COVID measures by saying that people do not have to wear a mask in public.

The Navajo Nation Council removed Kirk as the tribal controller in May 2021 after prosecutors first filed complaints against her. She had served in the job since early 2017.

Kirk maintained she did nothing wrong and was trying to keep her employees safe.

The Navajo Nation at one point had one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the U.S.

New Mexico's COVID-19 public health orders to end March 31 - Associated Press

New Mexico is extending health orders related to COVID-19 one final time through the end of the month.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made the announcement Friday that she is renewing an executive order but will let it expire after March 31.

"While we're still seeing COVID cases, our preparedness and collaborative work have helped turn a once-in-a-century public health emergency into a manageable situation," Lujan Grisham said in a statement.

She also urged people, especially the elderly and immuno-compromised, to get vaccinated.

The New Mexico Department of Health had maintained measures such as a mask mandate for public indoor spaces and a requirement for health care workers and certain other employees to be current on vaccinations.

The public health orders were last extended in January, as the omicron variant was driving up the case count. New Mexico's hospitals were operating under standards of care that prioritize immediate medical emergencies.

New Mexico was one of five other states — including Texas and Illinois — that still have such declarations.

California's coronavirus emergency officially ended Feb. 28, nearly three years after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the nation's first statewide stay-at-home order.

The lapsing of the orders signals an end to the expanded legal powers of governors to suspend laws in response to the once mysterious disease.

President Joe Biden announced in January that the federal government will end its own version May 11.

Abortion clinics crossing state borders not always welcome - By Kimberlee Kruesi, Sarah Rankin And Hilary Powell Associated Press

The pastors smiled as they held the doors open, grabbing the hands of those who walked by and urging many to keep praying and to keep showing up. Some responded with a hug. A few grimaced as they squeezed past.

Shelley Koch, a longtime resident of southwest Virginia, had witnessed a similar scene many Sunday mornings after church services. On this day, however, it played out in a parking lot outside a modest government building in Bristol where officials had just advanced a proposal that threatens to tear apart the very fabric of her community.

For months, residents of the town have battled over whether clinics limited by strict anti-abortion laws in neighboring Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia should be allowed to continue to hop over the border and operate there. The proposal on the table, submitted by anti-abortion activists, was that they shouldn't. The local pastors were on hand to spread that message.

"We're trying to figure out what we do at this point," said Koch, who supports abortion rights. "We're just on our heels all the time."

The conflict is not unique to this border community, which boasts a spot where a person can stand in Virginia and Tennessee at the same time. Similar disputes have broken out across the country following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn the landmark 1973 decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion.

As clinics have been forced to shutter in Republican-dominant states with strict abortion bans, some have relocated to cities and towns just over the border, in states with more liberal laws. The goal is to help women avoid traveling long distances. Yet that effort does not always go smoothly: The politics of border towns and cities don't always align with those in their state capitals. They can be more socially conservative, with residents who object to abortion on moral grounds.

Anti-abortion activists have tapped into that sentiment — in Virginia and elsewhere — and are proposing changes to zoning and other local ordinance laws to stop the clinics from moving in. Since Roe was overturned, such local ordinances have been identified as a tool for officials to control where patients can get an abortion, advocates and legal experts say.

In Texas, even before Roe was overturned, more than 40 towns prohibited abortion services inside their city limits. That trend, led by anti-abortion activist Mark Lee Dickson, has since successfully spread to politically conservative towns in Iowa, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nebraska and Ohio.

Under Roe, the high court had ruled that it was unconstitutional for state or local lawmakers to create any "substantial obstacle" to a patient seeking an abortion. That rule no longer exists.

While such local ordinance changes are no longer necessary in Texas, which now has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, Dickson says he and others will continue to pursue them in other states with liberal abortion statutes.

"We're going to keep on going forward and do everything that we can to protect life," he said.

In New Mexico, which has one of the country's most liberal abortion access laws, activists in two counties and three cities in the eastern part of the state have successfully sought ordinance changes restricting the procedure. Democratic officials have since proposed legislation to ban them from interfering with abortion access.

In the college town of Carbondale, Illinois, a state where abortion remains widely accessible, anti-abortion activists have asked zoning officials to block future clinics from opening after two already operate in town. Thus far, they've been unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, some of the states that have severely restricted abortion access are trying to make it harder for residents to end their pregnancies elsewhere. Employees at the University of Idaho who refer students to a clinic just 8 miles (13 kilometers) away in the liberal-leaning state of Washington could face felony charges under a recently passed state law.

Perhaps no other place so neatly encapsulates the issue as the twin cities of Bristol, Virginia, and Bristol, Tennessee. Before Roe, an abortion clinic had operated for decades in Bristol, Tennessee. After Roe, which triggered the Volunteer State's strict abortion law, the clinic hopped over the state line into Bristol, Virginia.

That's when anti-abortion advocates began pushing back. At the request of some concerned citizens, the socially conservative, faith-based Family Foundation of Virginia helped draft an amendment to the city's zoning code that says, apart from where the existing clinic sits, land can't be used to end a "pre-born human life."

"Nobody wants their town to be known as the place where people come to take human life. That's just not a reputation that the people in Bristol want for their area," said foundation President Victoria Cobb.

The amendment has stalled before the Planning Commission as the city's attorney, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and others question its legality. Meanwhile, the board of supervisors in Washington County, which surrounds Bristol, passed a similar restrictive zoning ordinance on Feb. 14, and at least three counties have since adopted resolutions declaring their "pro-life stance," according to the Family Foundation.

Before Roe was overturned, such zoning restrictions would have been unconstitutional, noted ACLU attorney Geri Greenspan. Now, however, "we're sort of in uncharted legal territory," she said.

It's a struggle that residents like Koch weren't expecting.

In 2020 — when Democrats were in full control of state government — they rolled back restrictions on abortion services, envisioning the state as a safe haven for access. Virginia now has one of the South's most permissive abortion laws, which comforted Koch when Roe was overturned.

Now, however, her relief has been replaced by anxiety.

"I realized how little I knew about the workings of local government," she said. "It's been a detriment."

The Bristol Women's Health clinic is battling multiple lawsuits but would not be affected by the proposed ordinance unless it tried to expand or make other changes. While some residents oppose the facility, "they're more afraid that this industry is going to expand and that Bristol is going to just become a multistate hub of the abortion industry," said the Rev. Chris Hess, who as pastor of St. Anne Catholic Church has advocated for the zoning change.

Debra Mehaffey, who has spent more than a decade protesting outside abortion clinics, said people are coming to Bristol from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, "all over to come get abortions, you know, because they can't get them in their state."

"So it will be great to see it totally abolished," she said.

Clinic owner Diane Derzis, who has owned numerous other abortion clinics — including the one in Mississippi at the center of the Supreme Court's recent decision — downplays the pushback. She said she's grown accustomed to protests and even experienced the bombing of a separate clinic.

But Derzis is also girding herself for many more post-Roe battles in the future.

Abortion "is just under attack and it's going to be for years," she said.