FRI: West Dodges Severe Water Cuts For Now But Drier Future Looms, + More

Aug 14, 2020

US West Faces Reckoning Over Water But Avoids Cuts For Now - By Sam Metz Associated Press/Report For America

Levels in two massive lakes in the U.S. West are projected to remain high enough to avert severe water cuts in states that rely on the Colorado River.

The river supplies Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico. Its water pours out of faucets in growing cities like Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix and nourishes enough farmland to yield 15% of total U.S. crop output and 13% of livestock production.

The levels forecast Friday for Lake Mead and Lake Powell will only trigger voluntary reductions in Arizona and Nevada that haven't yet trickled down to homes.

Despite optimistic forecasts, officials say they must prepare for a drier future as climate change and prolonged drought shrink the amount of water available for cities and farms.

With a combination of conservation and alternative sources, officials hope to avoid painful cuts to their water supply from the river that serves 40 million people in seven states.

New Mexico Aims To Keep Daily COVID-19 Case Count In Check - Associated Press

New Mexico health officials on Friday reported an additional 175 COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 23,160 since the pandemic began.

The tally marks another day of lower daily case counts as state health officials look to keep the numbers from spiking again. Two of the state's more populous counties — Bernalillo and Dona Ana — accounted for 40% of the newly reported cases.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during an online briefing Thursday that as long as the state can sustain lower case counts, the potential for reopening parts of the economy become greater.

Case counts are just one metric that health officials are tracking. Others include the rate of spread, hospitalizations and the capacity for contact tracing.

Officials said this week that those targets are being met.

The state reported an additional six deaths Friday, bringing that total to more than 700 statewide. The latest deaths involve two people from San Juan County, including a man in his 30s who had underlying conditions.

New Mexico Retirement Board To Study Investment Policies - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Policies that guide pension investments for New Mexico teachers and other educational retirees would have to change if the Educational Retirement Board wants to divest in private prison companies or other individual stocks it disapproves of for social reasons.

Questions about socially responsible investments dominated Friday's meeting as teachers' unions and immigrant activists have called on the board to stop investing in Florida-based GEO Group and Tennessee-based CoreCivic.

Currently, investments are handled by managers as part of index funds that consist of numerous companies. Legal and fiscal experts stressed to board members that they have a responsibility to be prudent and ensure the greatest return for retirees.

Mary Lou Cameron, longtime board chairwoman and a retired educator from Deming, said she would have preferred to vote Friday to get rid of the prison stock but acknowledged that the board needs to "do it in the right way" and avoid running afoul of the constitutional mandates and statutory requirements that guide investment of the multibillion-dollar pension fund.

The board ordered the staff to research the issue over the coming months and craft language that would give members the opportunity to divest in certain funds going forward.

Popular Tourist Sites On The Navajo Nation Can Reopen Soon - By Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

Popular tourist destinations on the Navajo Nation, including Canyon de Chelly, can start welcoming back tourists Monday under the tribe's reopening plan.

Much of the reservation has been closed since March as coronavirus swept through. The tribe released a plan this week that allows parks and marinas to reopen with safeguards. Businesses can operate at limited capacity.

Employees at tribal and national parks on the reservation say they will be busy this weekend preparing for tourists.

The tribe has confirmed 9,394 positive cases of COVID-19 on the reservation since the pandemic begin. As of Thursday, 478 people have died.

The numbers are a vast change from earlier this year, when the tribe had one of the highest per-capita rates of infection in the U.S. The tribe has had fewer than 50 cases each day for the past two weeks, it said.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez says the Navajo Nation won't rush to fully reopen, recognizing that cases could spike if residents become complacent.

The reservation will be under another lockdown this weekend that starts after sundown Saturday and ends early Monday. A mask requirement also is in place.

New Mexico State University Faculty Consider UnionizingLas Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press

New Mexico State University faculty members are considering whether to form a union after President John Floros said faculty cuts were likely as a result of budget cuts.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reports Floros said the university would keep its best people and anyone else who doesn't “get on the bus" would need to find another place to work. 

The comment concerned some faculty members and helped stir union sentiments.

University regents approved a 10.5% budget reduction in July amid budget problems caused by the coronavirus.

Every department at the university must submit plans for budget cuts to Floros by September. The administration will announce its final decisions in October after reviewing the plans.

Floros said he thinks the university will be able to cut costs without furloughs or salary reductions.

The faculty's last attempt to organize in 2013 was unsuccessful. 

Navajo President Says Schools Should Use Online Learning In FallAssociated Press

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez is urging all schools on the tribe's reservation to use online learning during the fall semester to help reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Nez's statement released Thursday night cited all public and private schools, including charter schools, schools operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and those controlled by the tribe.

Over 9,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases have been reported on the reservation, which includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah..

Governor, Legislature Name Civil Rights Commissioners - Cedar Attanasio AP/Report For America

The New Mexico Civil Rights Commission is now fully staffed following an announcement from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham Friday that she has named the final three members of the nine-member group.

The panel was created through legislation in June during a special legislative session that was focused on state funding fixes in the wake of the coronavirus.  It included discussions around policing and racial inequity as protests raged following the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd in police custody.

Under the legislation, the governor appoints three members and the Legislative council appoints six.

Lujan Grisham's appointees include retired State Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson, of Santa Fe; former Belen police chief Victor Rodriguez; and current Second Judicial District Chief Judge Stan Whitaker, of Albuquerque, who oversees criminal cases.

The state's Legislative Council appointed six members to the commission on Wednesday: Gerald Byers, Kim Stewart, and Denise Torres, of Las Cruces; Zackeree Kelin and Mark Baker, of Albuquerque; and state Sen. Steve Neville, of Aztec. Biographical details on those appointees were not immediately available.

Altogether, the bipartisan commission includes four Democrats, three Republicans and three unaffiliated members.

New Mexico Governor Warns Of Family, Labor Day Gatherings - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says family gatherings and long holiday weekends have been a source of infection for many New Mexicans who have contracted COVID-19.

She warned during a briefing Thursday that gatherings in a COVID-19 world make for the worst possible situation. She asked everyone to buckle down and stick to the five-person limit mandated by the state's public health order.

Her plea comes as state officials monitor the rate of spread as a deadline approaches for determining whether public schools can resume limited in-person classes after Labor Day.

The governor and health officials were optimistic as they reported a decline in daily case counts.

An additional 177 confirmed cases were reported Thursday, bringing the total to 22,987 since the pandemic began. Two more deaths were also reported, bringing that tally to 697.

Officials said they were most concerned about the southeastern part of the state.

Another concern is that nearly 16% of cases in New Mexico involve people under the age of 20. Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said that's higher than the rest of the country.

Hopefuls In Key US House Race In New Mexico OK 2 Debates - By Russell Contreras Associated Press

Democratic U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small and Republican challenger Yvette Herrell have agreed to at least two televised debates in a closely watched race in southern New Mexico. 

And they may be looking for more.

Torres Small and Herrell said this week they agreed to participate in a KOB-TV debate and another sponsored by KOAT-TV and the Albuquerque Journal. 

Both say they'd like to add some more debates in the El Paso, Texas market, which is home to many residents in the southern part of the district. 

The scheduled debates come two years after Torres Small defeated Herrell by less than 4,000 votes in 2018. But the two never faced off in a televised debate and Herrell, a former state lawmaker from Alamogordo, New Mexico, faced criticism for avoiding televised debates and focusing on conservative media appearances.

Union Votes No Confidence, Calls For Santa Fe Mayor's OusterSanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

Some Santa Fe city employees are calling on the city council to remove Mayor Alan Webber. The city's union approved a 'no confidence' vote Wednesday.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that the resolution cites concerns about mismanagement over the past few years — from the death of an electrician last year to a botched plan to remove historical markers and statues following protests this year.

Santa Fe Local 3999 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has called for a mayor's removal before. In 2007, the union voted 'no confidence’ in then-Mayor David Coss over meddling in disciplinary actions.

A spokesperson for the mayor did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.

The no confidence vote comes as the city faces a large deficit due to the coronavirus shutdown that virtually halted local tourism, freezing a major source of city revenues.

Parents Scramble For Child Care As Schools Stay Online - By Cedar Attanasio AP/Report For America

Working parents in New Mexico are scrambling to find child care as summer programs and in-person public schooling is delayed until at least Labor Day.

Hundreds of child care centers remain shuttered due to staffing shortages stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says New Mexico will fall short on meeting everyone's child care needs in the short term.

Efforts by Lujan Grisham's newly created child care agency could help, but parents still are having to decide whether to pay for private schooling, cut back hours or create home schooling groups.

The deadline to enter a lottery for the Albuquerque Community Centers’ School Year Program, a full-day educational and recreational program for remote students, is Friday.


New Mexico City Agrees To Police Reforms In Choke Settlement - By Russell Contreras, Associated Press

A New Mexico city will seek to adopt racial bias training for police and may require officers to intervene in possible excessive force episodes following the choking death of a Latino man.

An agreement announced Thursday between the city of Las Cruces and a lawyer for the family of Antonio Valenzuela was part of the relatives' push to reform the city's police.

Police say then-Las Cruces Officer Christopher Smelser applied the chokehold after Valenzuela fled during a traffic stop in February. Valenzuela died at the scene.

Smelser was later fired and faces a murder charge. His lawyer says the charge was a political move meant to grab headlines.


New Mexico State University Announces Likely Faculty CutsLas Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press

New Mexico State University said there will likely be faculty cuts because of a reduced budget spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. University regents approved a 10.5% budget reduction to the main campus in July.

University President John Floros says the school will evaluate each department and college separately. Floros says he believes the university will be able to cut costs without furloughs or salary reductions.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reports that every department at the university must submit plans for a 6%, 9% and 12% budget cut to Floros by September.

The administration will announce their final decisions in October after reviewing the plans.

Project Will Bring Drinking Water To New Mexico PueblosAssociated Press

Work is underway on a project that will bring drinking water to residents of four northern New Mexico pueblos as part of a settlement that ended a decades-long fight over water rights.

Federal officials said construction on the Pojoaque Basin regional water system began this week. The pueblos of Pojoaque, Nambe, San Ildefonso and Tesuque will benefit along with other residents of Santa Fe County.

The system will divert water from the Rio Grande. It will include treatment facilities, storage tanks and transmission and distribution pipelines with the capability to supply about 3.57 million gallons of drinking water a day.

Officials with the federal Bureau of Reclamation said the project will cost about $400 million and will take several years to complete.

They say there's a need for more action by Congress, as lawmakers will need to raise the ceiling for spending related to the project in order to move beyond limited construction. Currently, spending is capped at a little more than $200 million.

Navajo Nation Reports 38 More COVID-19 Cases, 1 More Death - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials have reported 38 more cases of COVID-19 and one additional death. 

That brings the total number of people infected to 9,394 and the known death toll to 478 as of Thursday. 

Navajo Department of Health officials say 87,402 people have been tested for the coronavirus and 6,9242 have recovered. 

Tribal President Jonathan Nez pointed to the latest coronavirus figures as evidence that most Navajo Nation residents are complying with lockdown orders and the advice of medical experts. 

The tribe has a work group determining a plan to gradually reopen the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Navajo Man Loses Latest Bid To Delay Federal Execution - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

A judge has rejected a bid from the only Native American on death row to push back his execution date. 

U.S. District Judge David Campbell in Arizona issued the ruling Thursday. 

Attorneys for Lezmond Mitchell had argued the federal execution must comply with Arizona law in seeking the delay. Campbell said the attorneys didn't identify any procedures in Arizona statutes or criminal rules that conflict with federal protocol when it comes to how Mitchell would die. 

Mitchell's attorneys plan to take that case to the U.S. Supreme Court. They also filed a petition for clemency, backed by the Navajo Nation and the tribe's longstanding opposition to putting its citizens to death. 

Tribes have long been able to decide on capital punishment for a set of major crimes committed by Native Americans on tribal land. The Navajo Nation said no to executing Lezmond Mitchell, despite the grisly nature of the killings.

The Justice Department didn't respond to a request for comment. 

Mitchell is scheduled to be put to death Aug. 26 in Indiana.