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FRI: The Supreme Court rejects a settlement in a water dispute, "Rust" judge rejects effort to compel new testimony from movie armorer, +More

The Rio Grande at Isleta Blvd. and Interstate 25 on Sept. 7, 2023.
Anna Padilla
/
Source New Mexico
The Rio Grande, one of North America's longest rivers.

The Supreme Court rejects a settlement in a water dispute between New Mexico and TexasAssociated Press

The Supreme Court on Friday rejected a settlement between Western states over the management of one of North America's longest rivers.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices ruled that the water-sharing deal between Texas and New Mexico can't go through because the federal government still has concerns about New Mexico water use on the Rio Grande, which Colorado also draws from.

"Having acknowledged those interests, and having allowed the United States to intervene to assert them, we cannot now allow Texas and New Mexico to leave the United States up the river without a paddle," said Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, reading the majority opinion, which crossed ideological lines as it was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh and John Roberts.

In a dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch said the United States' theory about how water should be distributed between the two states is "so aggressive that New Mexico fears it could devastate its economy." Joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett, he wrote that the high court's ruling "defies 100 years of this court's water law jurisprudence."

New Mexico's state engineer said it was disappointing the high court scuttled the deal recommended by a federal judge overseeing the case.

"We need to keep working to make the aquifers in the Lower Rio Grande region sustainable, and lasting solutions are more likely to come from parties working together than from continued litigation," said Mike Hamman, whose office is responsible for administering the state's water resources.

Some New Mexico lawmakers had voiced concerns about the proposed settlement, which would have meant reducing the state's use of Rio Grande water with steps like paying farmers to leave their fields barren and making infrastructure improvements.

Attorney Samantha Barncastle with the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, the largest in New Mexico, greeted the ruling with pleasure and said her group hopes all the parties will go back to the settlement table and hammer out a new agreement.

Farmers in southern New Mexico have had to rely more heavily on groundwater wells over the last two decades as drought and climate change resulted in reduced flows and less water in reservoirs along the Rio Grande. Texas sued over the groundwater pumping, saying the practice was cutting into the amount of water that was ultimately delivered as part of the interstate compact.

U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Melloy had previously deemed the proposal a fair and reasonable way to resolve the conflict consistent with a decadeslong water-sharing agreement.

The federal government, though, lodged several objections, including that the proposal did not mandate specific water capture or use limitations within New Mexico.
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Associated Press writer Rio Yamat in Las Vegas contributed to this story.

New Mexico judge rejects effort to compel new testimony from movie armorer in Alec Baldwin trial– Associated Press

A New Mexico judge denied a request Friday to use immunity to compel testimony from a movie set armorer in the involuntary manslaughter trial of actor Alec Baldwin who fatally shot a cinematographer during rehearsal for the Western movie "Rust."

Armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed was convicted in March of involuntary manslaughter for her role in the shooting of Halyna Hutchins on a movie-set ranch and she was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Her statements to investigators and workplace safety regulators will likely feature prominently in Baldwin's trial.

Further testimony could be limited by the armorer's reluctance to testify, and Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer said Friday that other witnesses can fill in most of the gaps if she doesn't testify. At a pretrial interview in May, Gutierrez-Reed exercised her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to answer all questions.

"It's pretty clear that she does not intend to cooperate," Marlowe Sommer said. "I haven't heard of anything that she might testify to that someone else could not testify to."

But the judge acknowledged that Gutierrez-Reed could offer new testimony about gun-safety training and whether Baldwin fully participated.

Special prosecutor Kari Morrissey indicated that the state could still call on Gutierrez-Reed to testify without immunity. Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed both oppose efforts to compel her testimony.

Baldwin figured prominently at her trial, which highlighted gun-safety protocols and his authority as a co-producer and the lead actor on "Rust."

Gutierrez-Reed is appealing her conviction and has also been charged separately with carrying a firearm into a Santa Fe bar weeks before the fatal shooting.

An attorney for Gutierrez-Reed said compelling her to testify, even with immunity, would "virtually eliminate" the possibility of a fair trial on the pending firearms charge and could disrupt her appeal.

The virtual hearing also cleared the way for testimony at trial by a "Rust" crew member.

In a recent pretrial interview, boom operator Zac Sneesby "revealed that he was standing very close to Mr. Baldwin when he shot and killed Halyna Hutchins," special prosecutor Erlinda Ocampo Johnson told the court Friday. "Mr. Sneesby specifically said he saw Mr. Baldwin pull the trigger. And as you know, the defense position has always been that he didn't pull the trigger. Well, now there's an eyewitness."

Also during Friday's hearing, Marlowe Sommer ruled against a request by defense attorneys to scuttle the trial because they said Baldwin had no reason to believe the gun could contain live ammunition and wasn't "subjectively aware" of the risks.

The court will hear a second motion to dismiss the case based on the argument that the firearm was heavily damaged during FBI forensic testing before it could be examined for possible modifications that might exonerate the actor.

"The government took the most critical evidence in this case — the firearm — and destroyed it by repeatedly and pointlessly striking it with a mallet," defense attorneys said in court filings. "Government agents knew that the firearm would not survive."

During the fatal rehearsal on Oct. 21, 2021, Baldwin was pointing the gun at Hutchins when it went off, killing her and wounding director Joel Souza, who survived. Baldwin says he pulled back the gun's hammer but did not pull the trigger.

Prosecutors plan to present evidence at trial that they say shows the firearm "could not have fired absent a pull of the trigger" and was working properly before the shooting.

At Gutierrez-Reed's trial, an FBI expert testified the gun was fully functional with safety features when it arrived at an FBI laboratory. The expert said he had to strike the fully cocked gun with a mallet and break it for the gun to fire without depressing the trigger.

Baldwin has pleaded not guilty to the involuntary manslaughter charge, which carries a maximum sentence of 18 months in prison.

Marlowe Sommer previously rejected another Baldwin motion for dismissal, ruling that the grand jury was able to make an independent judgment on the indictment.

Last year, special prosecutors dismissed an involuntary manslaughter charge against Baldwin, saying they were informed the gun might have been modified before the shooting and malfunctioned. But they pivoted after receiving a new analysis of the gun and successfully pursued a grand jury indictment.

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The spelling of the first name of special prosecutor Kari Morrissey has been corrected.

County manager finalists make final pitches to commission, communityRodd Cayton, City Desk ABQ

Joseph Lessard says he’s got the diversity of experience to head up the government of New Mexico’s most populous county.

Cindy Chavez says her leadership record presents her as the ideal candidate.

Marcos Gonzales says he’s invested in Bernalillo County’s future success and is familiar with the challenges facing it.

One of them will be the next county manager, replacing Julie Morgas Baca, who retires at the end of the month.

MEET THE FINALISTS

The three finalists presented their cases for the job and answered questions from the Bernalillo County Commission at a forum Tuesday.

Gonzales, the county’s executive development officer, touted the work he has done in that position and others he’s held since joining the county 12 years ago.

If chosen, he said, he’ll move to make Bernalillo County a model that other local governments will want to emulate. He said he’ll take strategies that have been successful in economic development and apply them across the entire county government, and regularly check on what is and what isn’t working.

Gonzales also said he’ll build partnerships with both the public and private sectors to help position the county to take advantage of new opportunities. Doing so, he said, will require road, broadband and water improvements, among other tools.

Lessard, most recently the city manager of Ashland, Oregon, spoke about his experience in government and the private sector that he said makes him a well-rounded candidate.

He spoke of working in public works, economic development, habitat planning and other fields.

Lessard said he’s been able to build consensus among city councils despite sometimes having to accommodate two sides that appeared to be diametrically opposed.

Chavez sits on the Santa Clara County (California) Board of Supervisors and chairs the board of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. She spoke of her work in the labor movement and a think tank focused on improving the lives of working families.

She said her term ends in December and she’s looking to make a transition and put her skills to use for a new community. She said that while Santa Clara County — home of Silicon Valley — has a reputation for being wealthy, the area is actually marked by significant ethnic and economic diversity, which are also present here.

KEY ISSUES

Commissioners asked questions about balancing the county’s need for new jobs and protecting its natural resources, labor relations and serving rural and urban residents alike.

Chavez said she represents a supervisor district that includes city and forest dwellers and has been able to address the needs of each.

Gonzales said it’s important to be fair to the county’s employees while also being a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars.

Lessard said natural resources are actually an economic development tool, as their presence serves as a magnet for the quality employees companies need.

During public comment, several people urged the commission to choose Gonzales or the Alamogordo-born Chavez. Others said they felt any of the three would be a satisfactory choice.

Chavez was touted for her vision, compassion and selflessness, while supporters of Gonzales spoke of his problem-solving skills and expertise.

Lessard, meanwhile, joked that he was disappointed his “busloads of supporters” failed to appear.

Each of the finalists said the commission asked great questions and the community participation was impressive.

Commissioners have said they hope to pick a new manager by June 30. The forum took place shortly after a special meeting at which they reaffirmed their selection process to rectify prior Open Meetings Act’s violations related to choosing a search committee.

After a candidate is chosen, contract negotiations with the manager-designate will follow. The commission can appoint an interim county manager until those negotiations are complete.

Public records and lightning data shed new light on Salt and South Fork fire origins — Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico

Officials from many agencies responding to the unfolding natural disaster in southeast New Mexico have said an investigation is ongoing about the cause of the South Fork and Salt fires, including whether the blazes were caused by a human or nature.

“When we got here we were told it was human-caused; we were also told it was lightning, but those sources were unconfirmed, not official,” said Dave Shell, a spokesperson for the incident command team handling the fires since yesterday.

Still, publicly available information – including records approved by the incident commanders of both fires and lightning strike data provided to Source New Mexico – sheds new light on potential causes of the blazes, which have so far destroyed or damaged 1,400 structures and taken two lives.

Records from the Alamogordo Interagency Dispatch Center show a cluster of confirmed fire starts on June 16, 17 and 18. Among the cluster are two fire starts that incident commanders have listed as the ignition points of what became the deadly Salt and South Fork fires on June 17.

Officials in charge of the fire did not answer questions as to whether investigators are looking into the cluster of fire starts detected by the Alamogordo dispatch center as part of their search for the fires’ causes.

Additionally, incident commanders in daily update reports – known as ICS 209s – have listed “human” as the cause for both fires.

However, Lessa Peter, a spokesperson for the fire response team, told Source New Mexico on Thursday afternoon that the cause listed as “human” is an error. It’s a result, she said, of an automated system incorrectly converting text entered as “undetermined” to “human.”

The fire’s cause is still very much under investigation, Peter and other officials stressed Thursday, including an initial determination about whether it was human-caused or natural. If it is human-caused, an investigation could take months or longer. The fires are still 0% contained.

The cause listed as “human” appears on the forms for both fires, two days in a row, according to a Source NM review. Other options available to include on those forms include “Undetermined,” and “Natural/Lightning,” according to the March 2023user manual produced by the National Interagency Fire Center.

Incident commanders have also listed the cause being “human” in daily summaries provided by the Southwest Coordination Center since the South Fork and Salt fires started. That’s a case of the original error from the ICS 209 forms being repeated, Peter said.

Few lightning strikes in areaWhile there is no determination whether the fire was caused by human activity, data provided to Source NM shows there were few lightning strikes in the area in the days before the fire began.

There were about 100 lightning strikes in June in the area of the fires before the fires began, records show. However, the closest ones to the ignition sites struck the ground on June 7, 10 days before the fires started.

Patrick Lohmann
/
Source New Mexico

Those 16 strikes on June 7 were a mile or more from the ignition sites, according to data provided to Source New Mexico by Vaisala XWeather, a private company that uses sensors and proprietary technology to detect lightning strikes.

The company says its technology can detect cloud-to-ground lightning strikes within 100 meters of where the bolt struck earth, as well as determine the electrical power and how many pulses were in each bolt. The National Weather Service contracts with the company for its own lightning strike analyses in the Wisconsin service area.

Investigation ongoingState officials with the governor’s office, State Forestry and the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management did not immediately answer a list of detailed questions Thursday.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham at a news conference this week cautioned the public against speculating on the fires’ causes as the disaster unfolds. She also said there had been reports of lightning in the area, stressing that much is still unknown about the fires’ origins.

Officials did not respond to a request for more details on the strikes she was referring to.

State officials said a team of six investigators, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, is working diligently to determine the causes of the fires.

The fires were first detected on June 17 on the northeast corner of the Mescalero Apache Reservation, and high winds and dry conditions carried both quickly to the village of Ruidoso and the city of Ruidoso Downs, which are both under evacuation orders.

The fires, though covering an area of only about 35 square miles, are already among the most destructive in New Mexico’s history, in terms of structures damaged or destroyed, the governor has said.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire in 2022, for example, was more than 10 times the size in terms of area burned but damaged or destroyed fewer structures: about 1,000 compared with the 1,400 impacted this week.

Two people have died, according to New Mexico State Police, and rain that fell in the area yesterday caused floods that required at least two swiftwater rescues and untold additional damage.

Additional fire starts
Dispatch records show fire crews responded to fire starts between June 16 and June 18, including the two that became Salt and South Fork Fires, in a roughly 20-square-mile area in the Mescalero Apache Reservation.

The first fire in that cluster was on June 16 at 7:44 p.m. and was deemed the Trails Fire. Dispatcher notes say “fire out,” suggesting it was extinguished or out by the time resources arrived.

The next day, on June 17, dispatchers detected four other fires in the area, including the South Fork Fire at 7:08 a.m. Then three others were detected progressively south of there, beginning with the Carrizo Fire at 8:08 a.m. about five miles south.

At 12:43 p.m., about 2 miles southwest of the Carrizo Fire, the Penn Scott Fire was reported. Finally, at 2:20 p.m., the Salt Fire was detected about 2.3 miles east of the Penn Scott Fire.

The next day, June 18, at 10:49 a.m., the 244 Penn Scott Fire was detected, according to dispatch logs. Apart from the Salt and South Fork Fires, all the fires are listed as less than an acre in size.

All of those fires, according to Source New Mexico review of satellite imagery, appear to have started within 100 feet of trails or roads.

Dispatchers also detected two fires nearby the afternoon of June 14: The Chico Canyon Fire about 2 miles south of the Salt Fire ignition site, and the Snowflake Ridge Fire about 4 miles northeast of the South Fork ignition site.

The Snowflake Ridge Fire occurred within 670 feet of a lightning strike that occurred that same day, according to Vaisala data provided to Source New Mexico. Two lightning strikes June 7 occurred a mile or so from the Chico Canyon Fire, according to the data.

Vaisala detected 260 lightning strikes so far this month in a roughly 400-square mile area, per Source New Mexico’s request – an area that more than covers the perimeters of both fires and stretches from the Sierra Blanca Peak in the northwest to 10 miles east of the edge of the Lincoln National Forest

The company detected about 100 strikes that lightning struck June 7, June 12, June 14 and June 15. Apart from the 16 strikes June 7, the rest of the strikes before the fires began hit far east of the ignition sites.

Another 160 or so lightning strikes were detected June 19, the day when 2 to 4 inches of rain fell on fire that was fully underway, adding the risk of lightning to an area already beleaguered by fire and water.

Source New Mexico is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Source New Mexico maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Shaun Griswold for questions: info@sourcenm.com. Follow Source New Mexico on Facebook and X.

Rain helps 1,000 firefighters slow big New Mexico blazes as Biden approves disaster relief — Morgan Lee, Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

More than 1,000 firefighters in New Mexico took advantage of a break in the weather on Thursday to get the upper hand — for now — on a pair of wildfires that have killed two people, destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands to flee.

President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration for parts of southern New Mexico, freeing up funding and more resources as crews worked to keep the flames from spreading. Their efforts have gotten a boost from a storm system that brought with it rain, hail and cooler temperatures to the mountain village of Ruidoso and other parts of the state.

"The fire has lost momentum," Arthur Gonzales, the fire behavior analyst for the federal attack team, told residents at a community meeting in Alamogordo on Thursday night. "We still have a lot of work to do, but it's really changed that fire behavior," he said, noting that very little growth is expected over the next few days.

But firefighters know it's a brief respite given the dry tinderbox conditions that helped fuel the fires in the first place. Within days, the fires have consumed an area half the size of Washington, D.C.

"What we're really focusing on now at this point, is when might we see this return to active fire spread?" Gonzales said. "Is there potential for this to start picking up and moving again?"

Federal and local officials said evacuation orders likely would remain in place for days in some places as crews snuff out hot spots around Ruidoso and law officers patrol streets to keep potential looters away.

Despite some reports that the fires were "human caused," federal incident commander Dave Gessar said the causes are under investigation and remain "undetermined."

The federal disaster declaration will help with recovery efforts, including temporary housing, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property and other emergency work in Lincoln County and on lands belonging to the Mescalero Apache Tribe.

Residents fled the larger of the two fires with little notice as it swept into neighborhoods on Monday. More areas were evacuated on Tuesday as the fire ballooned, consuming homes nestled among the the ponderosa pines that dominate the hillsides.

An estimated 1,400 structures have been destroyed or damaged, and Ruidoso Mayor Lynn Crawford has estimated about half were homes. Whole portions of some communities were lost, he said.

"These are things that are burnt to the foundations and all the trees around it," he said. "It's devastating."

Authorities say a 60-year-old man who died was found near the popular Swiss Chalet Inn in Ruidoso. His family said he had arranged for a ride from friends but they were unable to get to him Monday since the roads were blocked. It appeared he was overcome after he tried to set out on foot.

On Wednesday, officers discovered the skeletal remains of an unidentified second person in the driver's seat of a burned vehicle.

A couple of residents have been driving around Ruidoso and neighboring Alto, providing reports via social media of what they are seeing. There are neighborhoods where the ground was turned to ash, the trees were blackened and homes were reduced to their foundations, with only fireplaces remaining.

"I am speechless. I'm so sorry everyone," said Logan Fle, as he drove down one road.

Much of the Southwest has been exceedingly dry and hot in recent months. Those conditions, along with strong wind, whipped the flames out of control, rapidly advancing the South Fork Fire into Ruidoso in a matter of hours. Evacuations extended to hundreds of homes, businesses, a regional medical center and the Ruidoso Downs horse track.

Nationwide, wildfires have scorched more than 3,344 square miles (8,660 square kilometers) this year — a figure higher than the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Nearly 20 wildfires burning in California, Arizona, Colorado and Washington state and elsewhere are considered large and uncontained.

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Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Associated Press writer Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.

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AP Ruidoso wildfires page: https://apnews.com/hub/ruidoso

Floodwaters inundate Minnesota towns while another storm transformed New Mexico village into a lake — Associated Press

Several small-town tourist meccas in northern Minnesota have been inundated by floodwaters after a deluge of rain earlier this week, while another powerful storm turned a New Mexico village into a lake.

A storm in the 200-person village of Willard, New Mexico, on Wednesday unleashed a thick curtain of 6 to 8 inches of rain and lime-sized hail in the town outside of Albuquerque, as fire crews farther south in the mountain village of Ruidoso were still battling a pair of deadly wildfires. Some parts of New Mexico don't see that much rainfall in an entire year, National Weather Service meteorologist Brian Guyer said.

Meanwhile, in St. Louis County, Minnesota — the home of Duluth — people navigated flood-ridden streets with kayaks and other small boats, photos taken by KARE-TV showed.

The National Weather Service warned that more significant rain is possible in Minnesota over the next three days in areas with saturated ground and swollen rivers after receiving more torrential rain on Tuesday. Parts of St. Louis, Itasca and Lake counties recorded more than 7 inches of rain.

Dozens of roads were washed out across northern Minnesota after the storm, totally cutting off access to lakeside resorts and causing tens of millions of dollars' worth of damage. Officials in St. Louis County declared a disaster after estimating the floods had caused at least $50 million in damage and prompted the closure of more than 40 roads there.

Duluth itself fared better thanks to the improvements it made in its flood defenses after the record floods of 2012. But other smaller towns like Cook and Biwabik were not as fortunate. Gov. Tim Walz plans to tour the damage there on Friday.

"It's just sheer devastation," said Ryan Horner, who runs the 85-year old Comet Theater in downtown Cook that is covered with at least three feet of water. Inside the theater, Horner told Minnesota Public Radio that the water has filled the basement and is now more than chest deep at the bottom of the auditorium.

Elsewhere near Lake Vermillion, the flooding cut off all the roads into Glenwood Lodge, meaning the only way into the fully booked resort is by boat right now.

"We're stuck in here. We're not going anywhere with a vehicle," resort owner Billy Muelken said.

Willard, New Mexico, is feeling the effects of what happens when the state's wildfire and monsoon seasons overlap.

"We went from catastrophic wildfires one day to catastrophic flooding the next," said Guyer, of the National Weather Service.

Within minutes after commercial truck driver Mike Bischoff received an emergency alert that a storm was on the way, he was already stuck in it. The 54-year-old was driving his semi-truck on Highway 42 when the hail started to pour down and the flash floods surrounded him and the other drivers on the road.

Stuck in the storm, Bischoff said the hail poured down and a funnel cloud appeared in the sky.

"My semi weighs 80,000 pounds, and it was rocking," Bischoff said.

Much of the Southwest has been exceedingly dry and hot in recent months. Those conditions, along with strong wind, whipped flames out of control, rapidly advancing the South Fork Fire into Ruidoso. Evacuations extended to hundreds of homes, businesses, a regional hospital and the Ruidoso Downs horse track.