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FRI: Native American groups make demands of New Mexico governor, + More

James Mountain, Cabinet Secretary Designate of the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, speaks during American Indian Day at the State Capitol on Feb. 3, 2023.
Bella Davis
New Mexico In Depth
James Mountain, Cabinet Secretary Designate of the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, speaks during American Indian Day at the State Capitol on Feb. 3, 2023.

Native American groups make demands of New Mexico governor - By Susan Montoya Bryan And Morgan Lee Associated Press

A coalition of advocates dedicated to stemming the tide of violence and missing persons cases in Indian Country is demanding more transparency from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, saying there should be greater accountability in the system for vetting state-appointed positions that serve Indigenous communities.

About 30 protesters gathered Friday in the state Capitol rotunda to voice concerns about the Democratic governor's contested pick to head the state's Indian Affairs Department. They want the governor to withdraw her appointment of James Mountain, citing charges he once faced.

They were joined by legislators, including Democratic Sen. Shannon Pinto of the Navajo community of Tohatchi. The Navajo Nation president also has said he cannot support the appointment.

"For so many survivors, when we see James Mountain, we see our abusers," said Angel Charley, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.

She said Mountain's appointment has overshadowed a stalled proposal in the Legislature to make crime victims' reparations funds available to the families of missing and slain Native Americans.

"He knows how much division there is because of his nomination," she said. "Step down."

Lujan Grisham's appointment has sent shockwaves through tribal communities. While the governor so far has continued to defend Mountain, she has yet to submit his nomination to the Senate for confirmation despite the legislative session ending at noon Saturday.

Many in the Democratic-led Legislature have remained mum about the governor's choice not to push for a hearing, which would offer a public forum for Mountain to be vetted.

A former San Ildefonso Pueblo governor, Mountain was 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.

The governor has said those who disagree should respect that charges against Mountain were dismissed.

The coalition has said New Mexico continues to have the highest rate of missing and slain Native American relatives and that "we are at a critical turning point as an Indigenous people."

"The pervasive culture of violence has normalized behaviors that were once unthinkable in our communities," the coalition said in a statement. "We are reduced to speaking in hushed whispers about violence that we have not only personally experienced, but that we experience daily in our homes and communities."

"When we have the courage to speak out, we are often met with blame and stigma, as though we have caused these problems ourselves," the statement continued.

Aside from recalling Mountain's appointment, the coalition is demanding a rigorous vetting process for all state-appointed positions that serve Indigenous communities and that any nominee with a court record or indictment related to rape or domestic violence be disqualified.

They also are seeking the creation of a community advisory committee to help vet state-appointed tribal leadership.

"We cannot rely solely on the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the Navajo Nation leaders, Apache leaders, and/or Indigenous male state leaders for the vetting of candidates, as we have learned over the years that tribal leaders actively participate in the patriarchal culture of protecting perpetrators," the coalition said.

The groups also want a formal apology from Lujan Grisham "for this outrageous nomination" and demanded that an Indigenous woman be appointed as head of the New Mexico Department of Indian Affairs.

Mountain has not directly addressed the concerns about his nomination. In a letter directed at state lawmakers, his daughter, Leah Mountain, described him as a devoted father who instilled cultural identity, confidence and aspiration in her after her mother left. She said the allegations against him are false.

Mountain still can serve as head of Indian Affairs without confirmation, and the next likely opportunity for the full Senate to vote on confirming him wouldn't come until January 2024.

Snow shutters schools, buildings in parts of New Mexico - Associated Press

Wintry weather has made for more of a white than green St. Patrick's Day in New Mexico.

Northern and central parts of the state were blanketed with snow Friday morning thanks to a cold front, resulting in school closures and risky travel conditions.

Residents from metro areas to villages have shared pictures on social media of anywhere from 2 inches to a foot of snow.

Schools in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Rio Rancho opted to take a snow day, bringing an early start to a scheduled spring break.

Taos has closed all city and government buildings.

In Los Alamos, officials announced the Bandelier National Monument would be closed and reopen at noon on Saturday. But visitors are urged to check the monument's website and social media before coming.

The National Weather Service in Albuquerque cautioned drivers to be careful driving on slick roads.

Two hikers stuck in the Sandia Mountains overnight were rescued early Friday by Bernalillo County Fire Rescue. According to authorities, they had planned to hike from Sandia Crest to the Sandia Tram. But they were unprepared for the 2-3 feet of snow on the trail.

They were treated for hypothermia and are expected to recover.

Forecasters say another spell of chilly and damp weather is expected next week. Meanwhile, eastern New Mexico will see warmer and windier conditions.

Stormy weather has also been creating some stress elsewhere in the Southwest.

Heavy rainfall this week northwest of Las Vegas led to flooding in rural Lincoln County near the Utah border, causing concern that a dam in the area could fail.

On Thursday evening, Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo authorized county leaders to issue mandatory evacuations in the event of a dam failure, but county officials announced Friday morning that water levels were subsiding and the dam remained intact.

New Mexico passes bill to safeguard abortion providers - Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico legislators raced against the clock Friday to advance hard-fought proposals to safeguard abortion access, deliver tax relief and limit access to guns in the final hours of a 60-day legislative session.

Republicans in the legislative minority raised a series of objections during a House floor debate to a bill that aims to protect abortion providers and patients from out-of-state interference, prosecution or extradition attempts.

In a victory for abortion rights advocates in New Mexico and states where the procedure is banned, the House secured final passage of that bill, in a 38-30 vote with Republicans and some Democrats in opposition. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is expected to sign it. The governor already signed a law to block local abortion-ban ordinances.

Legislators have until noon on Saturday to send bills to the governor for consideration.

The Democrat-led Legislature passed bills in the final days of the session that would boost pay for statewide elected officials including the attorney general and secretary of state.

Among criminal justice initiatives, legislators passed a bill that would create penalties for organized retail crime and end the possibility of life prison sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as children.

Another bill on the governor's desk would use opioid settlement funds to provide treatment at county jails to inmates for drug addiction and alcohol dependency, by administering drugs including methadone and buprenorphine that can stop drug cravings without causing a euphoric high.

Crucial votes were pending Friday on gun control measures that would prohibit firearms at polling places during an election and allow state prosecution of straw purchases of firearms on behalf of a prohibited buyer. Several bills confronted long odds against approval to ban assault rifles, establish a 14-day waiting period on most gun purchases and raise the minimum purchase age to 21 for some firearms.

Republicans have helped endorse a bill to overhaul medical malpractice regulations. The initiative aims to lower insurance rates for independent clinics and attract more medical professionals to state, especially in remote, rural areas. The Democratic governor helped negotiate provisions of the bill and is expected to sign it into law.

The governor on Thursday signed a bill that will establish an office of renewable energy to oversee the expansion of wind and solar-energy production leases on state trust land.

The State Land Office would oversee the new division. The agency that once focused on oil and natural gas development has expanded renewable energy development in recent years to oversee 27 leases for wind energy production.

New Mexico governor says tax cuts could hurt schools, police - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is urging legislators to reevaluate the magnitude of proposed tax changes that would forgo $1 billion in annual state government income each year.

In a statement Thursday, the second-term Democratic governor warned that proposed tax changes could undermine state spending priorities, including public education, public safety and economic development initiatives aimed at diversifying the economy.

"Let's deliver bold, meaningful tax reform — but let's also protect our future," Lujan Grisham said.

The legislature has until noon Saturday to deliver bills to the governor, who can veto bills entirely or cross out individual spending provisions.

The Legislature anticipates a $3.6 billion surplus in state income for the coming fiscal year in excess of current spending obligations. Most of the surplus is linked to surging oil production in the southeast region of the state — income that can fluctuate wildly over time with shifts in global energy prices.

Tax changes recently endorsed by the state House, Senate or both chambers include $500 individual cash rebates, expanded incentives for film production in rural areas, refundable child tax credits of up to $600 per child, and a reduction in tax rates on sales and business transactions.

Legislators have endorsed limited tax increases on capital gains, alcohol sales and tobacco products.

A conference committee of six legislators met Thursday to reach a compromise on competing taxation proposals.

"It's too big, the package we came up with," Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth said.

Annual state general fund spending would increase by 14%, or nearly $1.2 billion, to $9.6 billion under a budget bill approved Wednesday by the Legislature. The Legislature also has endorsed more than $1 billion in direct, one-time spending on infrastructure that reduces expenses associated with borrowing money to pay for construction.

NMSU report calls for strengthened culture, values - By Eddie Pells Ap National Writer

An independent law firm investigating a fatal shooting by a New Mexico State basketball player recommended the school enhance its weapons policy and " strengthen a culture that encourages student-athletes to adhere to the integrity and values of NMSU at all times."

The school released the report Thursday evening, on the first full day of the NCAA Tournament, an event the Aggies were not eligible for after canceling their season in February.

An executive summary of the report did not identify any NCAA violations or failure of the school to meet legal obligations. The summary said the report was restricted by the absence of several witnesses, "including multiple basketball coaches and players," who refused to cooperate or were unavailable.

The report made six recommendations stemming from a Nov. 19 incident in which forward Mike Peake brought a gun on a road trip to Albuquerque, then was seen on video using it to fend off an attacker who was firing his own gun at him.

Peake has not been charged with a crime in the shooting of University of New Mexico student Brandon Travis. The shootings came about a month after Peake and Travis had been involved in a melee at a football game on the NMSU campus.

Other recommendations in the report called for:

—Setting better guidelines on curfew "because so many players on the NMSU basketball team broke curfew on the night of the shooting incident." Peake was among those who were out after curfew on the night before the Aggies were supposed to play New Mexico.

—Considering adopting a more detailed weapons policy. NMSU does not allow weapons on campus or on team trips, but that did not go far enough, according to the report. It said the school should adopt a clear policy prohibiting weapons by any player "traveling for team events or while engaging in any activity where the student-athlete is representing NMSU. NMSU should train all coaches andstudent athletes as to the same."

—Creating a specific policy for how coaches and staff should interact with law enforcement when athletes are accused of criminal activity. Investigators had difficulty finding Peake's gun after the shooting and also had difficulty contacting coach Greg Heiar and his assistants. Police had to track down the team bus on Interstate 25 after it left the next morning.

—Aiming for better coordination between the school and its stakeholders about how to share information about misconduct and possible discipline of players. The school suspended Peake 16 days after the shooting and has not given an update on his status at the university. The report made no specific recommendations about Peake and a school spokesman told The Associated Press there was no update on Peake's status.

The shooting is not what ended New Mexico State's season. Rather, it was separate accusations about hazing that compelled chancellor Dan Arvizu to cancel the season and fire Heiar.

In a letter accompanying the executive summary, Arvizu said a task force would be formed to implement the recommendations. He said the school was releasing the executive summary to show its commitment to transparency.

Feds want justices to end Navajo fight for Colo. River water - By Michael Phillis Associated Press

States that rely on water from the over-tapped Colorado River want the U.S. Supreme Court to block a lawsuit from the Navajo Nation that could upend how water is shared in the Western U.S.

The tribe doesn't have enough water and says that the federal government is at fault. Roughly a third of residents on the vast Navajo Nation don't have running water in their homes.

More than 150 years ago, the U.S. government and the tribe signed treaties that promised the tribe a "permanent home" — a promise the Navajo Nation says includes a sufficient supply of water. The tribe says the government broke its promise to ensure the tribe has enough water and that people are suffering as a result.

The federal government disputes that claim. And states, such as Arizona, California and Nevada, argue that more water for the Navajo Nation would cut into already scarce supplies for cities, agriculture and business growth.

The high court will hold oral arguments Monday in a case with critical implications for how water from the drought-stricken Colorado River is shared and the extent of the U.S. government's obligations to Native American tribes.

A win for the Navajo Nation won't directly result in more water for the roughly 175,000 people who live on the largest reservation in the U.S. But it's a piece of what has been a multi-faceted approach over decades to obtain a basic need.

Tina Becenti, a mother of five, made two or three short trips a day to her mom's house or a public water spot to haul water back home, filling several five-gallon buckets and liter-sized pickle jars. They filled slowly, sapping hours from her day. Her sons would sometimes help lift the heavy containers into her Nissan SUV that she'd drive carefully back home to avoid spills.

"Every drop really matters," Becenti said.

That water had to be heated then poured into a tub to bathe her young twin girls. Becenti's mother had running water, so her three older children would sometimes go there to shower. After a couple of years, Becenti finally got a large tank installed by the nonprofit DigDeep so she could use her sink.

DigDeep, which filed a legal brief in support of the Navajo Nation's case, has worked to help tribal members gain access to water as larger water-rights claims are pressed.

Extending water lines to the sparsely populated sections of the 27,000 square-mile reservation that spans three states is difficult and costly. But tribal officials say additional water supplies would help ease the burden and create equity.

"You drive to Flagstaff, you drive to Albuquerque, you drive to Phoenix, there is water everywhere, everything is green, everything is watered up," said Rex Kontz, deputy general manager of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. "You don't see that on Navajo."

The tribe primarily relies on groundwater to serve homes and businesses.

For decades, the Navajo Nation has fought for access to surface water, including the Colorado River and its tributaries, that it can pipe to more remote locations for homes, businesses and government offices.

It's a legal fight that resonates with tribes across the U.S., said Dylan Hedden-Nicely, the director of the Native American Law Program at the University of Idaho and an attorney representing tribal organizations that filed a brief in support of the Navajo Nation.

The Navajo Nation has reached settlements for water from the San Juan River in New Mexico and Utah. Both of those settlements draw from the Colorado River's Upper Basin.

The tribe has yet to reach agreement with Arizona and the federal government for water rights from the Colorado River in the Lower Basin that includes the states of California, Arizona and Nevada. It also has sought water from a tributary, the Little Colorado River, another major legal dispute that's playing out separately.

In the U.S Supreme Court case, the Navajo Nation wants the U.S. Department of the Interior to account for the tribe's needs in Arizona and come up with a plan to meet those needs.

A federal appeals court ruled the Navajo Nation's lawsuit could move forward, overturning a decision from a lower court.

Attorneys for the Navajo Nation base their claims on two treaties the tribe and the U.S. signed in 1849 and 1868. The latter allowed Navajos to return to their ancestral homelands in the Four Corners region after being forcibly marched to a desolate tract in eastern New Mexico.

The Navajo Nation wants the Supreme Court to find that those treaties guaranteed them enough water to sustain their homeland. And the tribe wants a chance to make its case before a lower federal court.

The federal government says it has helped the tribe get water from the Colorado River's tributaries, but no treaty or law forces officials to address the tribe's general water needs. The Interior Department declined to comment on the pending case.

"We absolutely think they're entitled to water, but we don't think the lower Colorado River is the source," said Rita Maguire, the attorney representing states in the Lower Basin who oppose the tribe's claims.

If the Supreme Court sides with the Navajo Nation, other tribes might make similar demands, Maguire said.

Arizona, Nevada and California contend the Navajo Nation is making an end run around another Supreme Court case that divvied up water in the Colorado River's Lower Basin.

"The first question in front of the court now is: why is the lower court dealing with the issue at all?" said Grant Christensen, a federal Indian law expert and professor at Stetson University.

Even if the justices side with the Navajo Nation, the tribe wouldn't immediately get water. The case would go back to the U.S. District Court in Arizona, and rights to more water still could be years, if not, decades away. The Navajo Nation also could reach a settlement with Arizona and the federal government for rights to water from the Colorado River and funding to deliver it to tribal communities.

Tribal water rights often are tied to the date a reservation was established, which would give the Navajo Nation one of the highest priority rights to Colorado River water and could force conservation on others, said Hedden-Nicely of the University of Idaho.

Given the likelihood of a long road ahead, Kontz of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority says many older Navajo won't live to see running water in their homes.

Becenti, the 42-year-old mother of five, remembers shedding tears of joy when running water finally was installed in her house and her family could use a flushable indoor toilet.

It was a relief to "go to the facility without having to worry about bugs, lizards, snakes," she said.

Haaland criticized over 'difficult' choice on Willow project - By Matthew Daly Associated Press

In early March, President Joe Biden met with members of Alaska's bipartisan congressional delegation as they implored him to approve a contentious oil drilling project in their state. Around the same time, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland held a very different meeting on the same topic.

Gathering at Interior headquarters a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) from the White House, leaders of major environmental organizations and Indigenous groups pleaded with Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet member, to use her authority to block the Willow oil project. Environmental groups call the project a "carbon bomb" that would betray pledges made by Biden — and Haaland — to fight climate change and have mounted a social media #StopWillow campaign that has been seen hundreds of millions of times.

The closed-door meeting, which was described by two participants who insisted on not being identified because of its confidential nature, grew emotional as participants urged Haaland to oppose a project many believed Biden appeared likely to approve even as it contradicted his agenda to cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

Haaland, who opposed Willow when she served in Congress, choked up as she explained that the Interior Department had to make difficult choices, according to the participants. Many Native groups in Alaska support Willow as a job creator and economic lifeline.

Less than two weeks later, the Biden administration announced it was approving Willow, an $8 billion drilling plan by ConocoPhillips on Alaska's petroleum-rich North Slope.

Haaland, who had not publicly commented on Willow in two years as head of the U.S. agency overseeing the project, was not involved in the announcement and did not sign the approval order, leaving that to her deputy, Tommy Beaudreau.

In an online video released Monday night, 10 hours after the decision was made public, Haaland said she and Biden, both Democrats, believe the climate crisis "is the most urgent issue of our lifetime.''

She called Willow "a difficult and complex issue that was inherited'' from previous administrations and noted that ConocoPhillips has long held leases to drill for oil on the site, in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

"As a result, we have limited decision space,'' she said, adding that officials focused on reducing the project's footprint and minimizing impacts to people and wildlife. The final approval reflects a substantially smaller project than ConocoPhillips originally proposed and includes a pledge by the Houston-based oil company to relinquish nearly 70,000 acres of leased land that will no longer be developed, she said.

The video had received more than 100,000 views by Friday.

Haaland declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a statement, the department said Haaland had been "actively involved" in the Willow decision from the start and met with Alaska Natives on both sides of the issue, conservation and other groups and members of Congress.

Dallas Goldtooth, a senior strategist for the Indigenous Environmental Network, called it "problematic" that Haaland's video was the Biden administration's primary voice on Willow. Biden himself has not spoken publicly on the project.

"They use people of color for cover on these decisions,'' said Goldtooth, a member of Mdewakanton Dakota tribe.

The White House pushed back on the idea, saying in a statement Friday that as interior secretary, "of course the video came from her."

But Haaland's body language — at times looking away from the camera — made her appear "very uncomfortable" in the two-minute video, Goldtooth said.

Haaland's statement "did not seem to be a wholehearted defense of the decision,'' said Brett Hartl, government affairs director of the Center for Biological Diversity, another environmental group. "It was almost an apology.''

Allowing Haaland to be the administration's public face on Willow strengthens Biden's expected reelection run by allowing him to avoid public scrutiny on an issue on which some of his most ardent supporters disagree with him, environmentalists said.

"It's clear-cut D.C. politics,'' Goldtooth said. "I've seen this play run before,'' including when former Biden environmental justice adviser Cecilia Martinez was put forward to address tribal concerns about two other energy projects, the Dakota Access and Line 3 oil pipelines in the upper Midwest.

Asked about Willow on Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the oil company "has a legal right to those leases," adding: "The department's options are limited when there are legal contracts in place."

Goldtooth and others involved in the Willow fight say the project was largely advanced by Beaudreau, Haaland's deputy, who grew up in Alaska and has a close relationship with the state's two Republican senators. Beaudreau is especially close to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a former Senate Energy chair who has cooperated with Biden on a range of issues. Murkowski played a key role in Haaland's confirmation, and she and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia teamed up to get Beaudreau installed as deputy after they objected to Haaland's first choice, Elizabeth Klein.

Murkowski told reporters this week that she and other Alaska officials had long realized that the decision on Willow was likely to be made by the White House, despite repeated comments from Jean-Pierre that the decision was up to Interior.

The senator, who personally lobbied Biden on Willow for nearly two years, said she reminded him, "Cooperation goes both ways.''

Despite the White House involvement, Haaland has been faulted for the decision to approve Willow. New Mexico's senior Democratic senator, Martin Heinrich, singled her out for criticism in a rare rebuke of a fellow New Mexico Democrat. Haaland represented the state in Congress before becoming Interior secretary.

"The Western Arctic is one of the last great wild landscapes on the planet and as public land it belongs to every American," Heinrich said in a statement. "Industrial development in this unspoiled landscape will not age well.''

Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., who holds Haaland's former seat in Congress, said she joined millions of people, "including Indigenous leaders, scientists and lawmakers, in opposing the Willow Project.'' She urged the Biden administration to reconsider the project and its consequences for global climate change.

Native American tribes in the Southwestern U.S. have been watching Willow closely, concerned about any implications it could have for development in culturally significant areas, including the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico.

A federal appeals court has ruled that the Interior Department failed to consider the cumulative effects of greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the approval of nearly 200 drilling permits near the Chaco site.

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, visited Chaco in 2021 and told tribal leaders that the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management would work toward withdrawing hundreds of square miles from development. She also committed to taking a broader look at how federal land across the region can be better managed while taking into account environmental effects and cultural preservation.

Mario Atencio, of Diné CARE, a Navajo environmental group, said he understands that the Interior Department faces pressure from GOP lawmakers to increase drilling, as well as conflicting court rulings on a pause ordered by Biden on oil leasing on public land.

"We're very aware that it's a game of inches sometimes, and there's a little discretion in some places, and we are just trying to have just as much visibility as the oil and gas industry has," said Atencio, who is Navajo.

The Willow project has divided Alaska Native groups. Supporters call the project balanced and say communities would benefit from taxes generated by Willow. But City of Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, whose community of about 525 people is closest to the proposed development, opposes the project and worries about impacts on caribou and her residents' subsistence lifestyles.

Hartl, of the biological diversity group, said Willow was approved by the White House for clear political reasons. "They cared more about Lisa Murkowski's vote than frankly they did the climate,'' he said.


Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this story.

New Mexico gov. signs bill overriding local abortion bans - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's governor signed an abortion-rights bill Thursday that overrides local ordinances aimed at limiting access to abortion procedures and medications.

Reproductive health clinics in New Mexico offer abortion procedures to patients from states, including Texas, with strict abortion bans. The new law also aims to ensure access to gender affirming healthcare related to distress over gender identity that doesn't match a person's assigned sex.

New Mexico has one of the country's most liberal abortion access laws, but two counties and three cities in eastern New Mexico have recently adopted abortion restrictions that reflect deep-seated opposition to offering the procedure.

The bill signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham overrides those local ordinances.

An additional bill working its way through New Mexico's Legislature would protect abortion providers and patients from out-of-state interference, prosecution or extradition attempts.

In 2021, New Mexico's Democrat-led Legislature passed a measure to repeal a dormant 1969 statute that outlawed most abortion procedures, which ensured access to abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.

Anti-abortion ordinances — adopted over the past several months by officials in the cities of Hobbs, Clovis and Eunice, along with Lea and Roosevelt counties — reference an obscure U.S. anti-obscenity law that prohibits shipping of medication or other materials intended to aid abortions.

Separately, Democratic state Attorney General Raúl Torrez has urged the state Supreme Court to intervene against local abortion ordinances that he says violate state constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.

Democratic governors in 20 states this year launched a network intended to strengthen abortion access in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision nixing a woman's constitutional right to end a pregnancy. The decision shifted regulatory powers over the procedure to state governments.

Many states have also enacted or contemplated limits or outright bans on transgender medical treatment, with conservative U.S. lawmakers saying they are worried about young people later regretting irreversible body-altering treatment.

Few disaster relief measures are scattered throughout historic budget funding bills - By Megan Gleason,Source New Mexico

While New Mexicans recovering from last year’s disasters try to keep up their livelihoods, afford food for dinner or get running water, it’s up to the governor now to determine how much recovery funds should be sent to victims and struggling communities.

Lawmakers approved two budget bills on Wednesday, sending both over to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Senators passed the capital outlay project funds bill by a vote of 27-13, and representatives concurred with changes made to the General Appropriations Act of 2023.

Once signed, the state will be working with a record-breaking $9.57 billion budget.

Tucked into both pieces of budget legislation are measures to help communities hit by disasters in 2022.

Southern New Mexico experienced the second-largest wildfire in state history and disastrous flooding afterward. It tore apart communities in and around the Gila National Forest, areas that are still attempting to recover. Grant and Sierra counties have been slogging through a long process to get state financial assistance for months.

Sens. Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) and Siah Correa Hemphill (D-Silver City) represent the affected communities, and introduced legislation last month that would send $3 million to those disaster victims.

The 2023 budget passed by lawmakers knocked that down to $2 million.

Diamond pointed out at a Senate Finance meeting on Saturday that the budget would also set aside $1 million for a telescope at the University of New Mexico. She questioned why that’s going through when nobody even introduced legislation for that, and her disaster funds are being cut by $1 million.

“So there wasn’t a bill request to put the million dollar telescope in, but there was a bill that was passing through it for the Black Fire, and that was reduced from $3 million to $2 million,” she said.

During Wednesday’s Senate floor debate, Diamond said there are also priority issues in the capital outlay project bill. She said Truth or Consequences has a water infrastructure crisis ongoing in the city, and a $20 million request to alleviate the situation isn’t going through.

The only funding in House Bill 505 specified for Truth or Consequences would go toward an animal shelter and senior center. There’s no funding set aside for the water issues Diamond mentioned.

“We have certainly ignored critical water infrastructure needs in some of more remote counties,” Diamond said.

A few hundred miles east of Diamond’s district, other counties are also trying to come back from disaster. The McBride Fire hit Ruidoso in Lincoln County last year, too, and lawmakers wanted to get over $18 million in recovery funds to their struggling counties.

The general appropriations bill took that down to $5 million.

The county would also get $1.8 million to repair flood-damaged roads, bridges and infrastructure, including sewer systems, under the capital outlay bill.

That capital outlay legislation doesn’t set aside anything similar for Black Fire-affected counties, although there would be around $15 million for flood mitigation and control in other parts of the state.

Northern counties recovering from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, the largest wildfire ever recorded in the state, already have state dollars set aside for them. The governor signed legislation into law back in February, allocating $100 million for local governments and counties to repair damage. That money is a loan the state expects to be repaid by billions in federal relief aid.

That legislation was unique because it didn’t directly tie into the budget bills, like a majority of other measures do. It was one of the first bills Lujan Grisham signed this year.

There are still some holes.

That money can only go to political subdivisions, which leaves some unanswered questions on how acequias can afford to fully recover.

Without those systems to irrigate crops, farmers and ranchers in southern and northern New Mexico are largely left without a source of income.

There could be some relief in the capital outlay bill for those disaster-wrecked systems.

The capital outlay legislation lays out general funds for acequia and irrigation associations across the state, including those that are still trying to recover from last year’s massive fires and floods.

Funding ranges from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars for specific acequia associations. One water project in Las Vegas has over $1 million allocated.

There’s also just over $5 million set aside for acequias statewide.

In that bill, there is only specific disaster recovery repair language for one acequia association in the budget — Madre de Holman in Mora County. The language in the bill specifies that work can be done “to plan, design and construct improvements to the acequia Madre de Holman, including disaster recovery repair.”

Other acequias aren’t singled out with that explicit language, but dollars allocated could potentially also go toward similar disaster work.

When lawmakers have discussed the budget bills over the past week in committee and on the House and Senate floors, there have been very few discussions about how the state dollars will help disaster-affected communities.

New Mexico poised to strengthen state Human Rights Act - By Austin Fisher,Source New Mexico

While state legislatures around the United States are considering or passing laws that exclude transgender people from citizenship and public life, the New Mexico Senate on Tuesday night voted to expand the New Mexico Human Rights Act specifically to prohibit discrimination against trans people.

Since 1969, New Mexico’s Human Rights Act has prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. However, House Bill 207 would expand the statute “so that there are no loopholes in the law,” co-sponsor Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) said.

Following in the footsteps of North Carolina’s infamous 2016 “bathroom bill,” which effectively legalized anti-LGBTQ discrimination, state lawmakers across the country have advanced more than 400 pieces of legislation in 2023 alone which attack trans youth and adults’ access to public education, health care, restrooms, and legal recognition of their gender.

Sen. Carrie Hamblen (D-Las Cruces), who carried the New Mexico bill in the state Senate, said the legislation will honor differences between New Mexicans, protect residents, and make sure public funds do not support discrimination.

Senators passed the bill Tuesday night in a party-line 26-10 vote. Six senators were absent from the debate.

“I am glad we have taken a protective stance for trans and queer kids in New Mexico, when so many across the country are increasingly fearing for their lives,” Hamblen said, her voice breaking.

The bill, if signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, would prohibit public entities and public contractors from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, disability, pregnancy, serious medical condition or spousal affiliation.

The legislation does not determine whether a government or individual entity is discriminating, Hamblen said. Instead, those findings are made by the state Human Rights Commission.

Lawmakers cannot create protections for all young people to end depression, anxiety, stigma, or suicidal intentions, said Sen. Leo Jaramillo (D-Española). They can however ensure that people charged with educating and protecting young people do so for LGBTQ+ youth across the state, he said.

“Let’s set a proper example across the nation and exemplify how many lives can be saved due to this critical piece of legislation,” Jaramillo said.

The Senate on Tuesday also passed related measures requiring menstrual products be made available in public school bathrooms; and prohibiting insurance companies from denying patients access to prosthetics or orthotics or changing someone’s insurance premiums because of a disability.

Sen. William Sharer (R-Farmington) tried to amend House Bill 207 to exempt religious organizations from the nondiscrimination law, but the Senate rejected his amendment.

“If any religious entity is receiving our taxpayer dollars, then those monies cannot be used to discriminate,” Hamblen said.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque) said the amendment would allow religious organizations to discriminate and use public funds to do so.

“That’s what we simply cannot allow,” Ortiz y Pino said. “There have been religions that supported segregation, apartheid, there have been religions that supported slavery. But they should never have been given government money to do those things.”

Drought over? Spring outlook finds relief -- and flood risk - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Record snowfall and rain have helped to loosen drought's grip on parts of the western U.S. as national forecasters and climate experts warned Thursday that some areas should expect more flooding as the snow begins to melt.

The winter precipitation wiped out exceptional and extreme drought in California for the first time since 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Thursday in a seasonal, nationwide outlook that came as parts of the state are under water. In neighboring Nevada, flood warnings were in effect and rushing water prompted some evacuations overnight in one of Arizona's tourist towns.

Elsewhere, NOAA's forecast warned of elevated flood risks from heavy snowpack this spring in the upper Midwest along the Mississippi River from Minnesota south to Missouri.

Despite the receding drought, experts cautioned that the relief may be only a blip as the long-term effects persist from what has been a stubborn dry streak.

Groundwater and reservoir storage levels — which take much longer to bounce back — remain at historic lows. It could be more than a year before the extra moisture has an effect on the shoreline at Lake Mead that straddles Arizona and Nevada. And it's unlikely that water managers will have enough wiggle room to wind back the clock on proposals for limiting water use.

That's because water release and retention operations for the massive reservoir and its upstream sibling — Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border — already are set for the year. The reservoirs are used to manage Colorado River water deliveries to 40 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico.

Lake Powell could gain 35 feet (11 meters) as snow melts and makes its way into tributaries and rivers over the next three months. How much it rises will depend on soil moisture levels, future precipitation, temperatures and evaporation losses.

Paul Miller, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service's Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, said that sounds like a lot of water for one of the nation's largest reservoirs, but it still will be only one-third full.

"It's definitely moving in the right direction, but we're far from filling the reservoirs in the Colorado River system and we're far from being at a comfortable point from a water supply perspective," Miller said during Thursday's NOAA briefing.

Federal forecasters outlined other predictions for temperature, precipitation and drought over the next three months, saying the spring wet season is expected to improve drought conditions across parts of the northern and central Plains and Florida could see dryness disappear there by the end of June.

Overall, the West has been more dry than wet for more than 20 years, and many areas will still feel the consequences. The northern Rockies and parts of Washington state will likely see drought expand over the spring, while areas of extreme to exceptional drought are likely to persist across parts of the southern High Plains.

An emergency declaration in Oregon warns of higher risks for water shortages and wildfires in the central part of the state, and pockets of central Utah, southeastern Colorado and eastern New Mexico are still dealing with extreme drought.

Ranchers in the arid state already are planning for another dry year, and some residents are still reeling from a historic wildfire season.

Jon Gottschalck, chief of the operational prediction branch at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, said the start of the fire season in the Southwestern U.S. likely will be delayed.

"But it doesn't mean that it couldn't end up being a very strong season," he said. "It's just likely to be a more muted beginning for sure."

Gottschalck said warmer than average temperatures are forecasted for New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas to the Gulf Coast and up the eastern seaboard, as well as in Hawaii and northern Alaska. Lower than normal temperatures are probable, he said, for North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Minnesota and the Great Basin region.

The real standout this winter has been the Great Basin, which stretches from the Sierra Nevada to the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. It has recorded more snow this season than the last two seasons combined. That's notable given that over the last decade, only two years — 2017 and 2019 — had snowpack above the median.

"We've pretty much blown past all kinds of averages and normals in the Lower Colorado Basin," Miller said, not unlike other western basins.

Tony Caligiuri, president of the preservation group Colorado Open Lands, said all the recent precipitation shouldn't derail work to recharge groundwater supplies.

"The problem or the danger in these episodic wet year events is that it can reduce the feeling of urgency to address the longer-term issues of water usage and water conservation," he said.

The group is experimenting in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, the headwaters of the Rio Grande. One of North America's longest rivers, the Rio Grande and its reservoirs have been struggling due to meager snowpack, long-term drought and constant demands. It went dry over the summer in Albuquerque, and managers had no extra water to supplement flows.

Colorado Open Lands reached an agreement with a farmer to retire his land and stop irrigating roughly 1,000 acres. Caligiuri said the idea is to take a major straw out of the aquifer, which will enable the savings to sustain other farms in the district so they no longer face the threat of having to turn off their wells.

"We've seen where we can have multiple good years in place like the San Luis Valley when it comes to rainfall or snowpack and then one drought year can erase a decade of progress," he said. "So you just can't stick your head in the sand just because you're having one good wet year."

Feds spend $2.4 million on cloud seeding for Colorado River - Brittany Peterson Associated Press

The Southern Nevada Water Authority on Thursday voted to accept a $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to fund cloud seeding in other Western states whose rivers feed the parched desert region.

The weather modification method uses planes and ground-based cannons to shoot silver iodide crystals into clouds, attracting moisture to the particles that falls as additional snow and rain.

The funding comes as key reservoirs on the Colorado River hit record lows and booming Western cities and industries fail to adjust their water use to increasingly shrinking supplies.

"This money from Reclamation is wonderful, we just have to decide how exactly it's going to benefit us," said Andrew Rickert, who coordinates Colorado's cloud seeding for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The federal funding will go toward upgrading manual generators to ones that can be remotely operated, and using planes to seed clouds in key parts of the Upper Colorado River Basin, according to Southern Nevada Water Authority documents for its board meeting.

Securing enough generators could be a challenge, Rickert said. "There's not a lot of makers of cloud seeding generators," he said. "Not only do we have to make sure we can find that, but that they could make as many as we need."

The Bureau of Reclamation declined to comment about the funding decision.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority said the grant, while administered by Nevada, is not exclusively for the state's benefit. "It will all be used to do cloud seeding in the Upper Basin for the benefit of all the river's users," wrote public outreach officer Corey Enus over email.

In the Upper Colorado River Basin, Utah and Colorado have been seeding clouds for decades. Wyoming has nearly a decade of experience, and New Mexico recently began approving permits for warm weather seeding in the eastern part of the state.

Colorado, Utah and Wyoming each spend between about $1 million and $1.5 million a year for cloud seeding. Utah's legislature recently expanded their investment in cloud seeding programs in next year's state budget, allocating more than $14 million.

Numerous studies indicate cloud seeding can add 5% to 15% more precipitation from storm clouds. Contractors work with states to estimate how much ends up in water supplies.

Since 2007, various groups have contributed to the overall cloud seeding budgets in those states. In 2018, several entities, including the Southern Nevada Water Authority, committed to long-term funding for those efforts, collectively contributing about $1.5 million annually.

The reclamation bureau regularly funded cloud seeding operations toward the end of the 20th century, but has largely backed off in recent years, according to Frank McDonough, a scientist at the nonprofit Desert Research Institute.

"The research that's come out over the last 10 years or so really seems to have convinced them that cloud seeding is a legitimate way to increase snowpack and subsequent water resources," McDonough said.

The grant from the bureau will be spread out over two years, temporarily doubling financial support for the Upper Basin cloud seeding from outside parties.

The seven Colorado River basin states are still negotiating with the Bureau of Reclamation on how they will conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water — or up to roughly one-third. The Bureau is expected to release a draft proposal this month and expects to finalize plans by mid-August, when it typically announces the amount of water available from the Colorado River for the following year.

With such an over-allocated river, everyone will have to use less, particularly the agricultural sector, said Kathryn Sorenson of the Kyl Center for Water Policy think tank.

"I think a lot the allure of this type of program is it's easier to talk about how do we get more than to talk about who has to use less," she said.