MON: Navajo Nation Issues Vaccine Mandate, Farmers On Rio Grande Face Early Water Cutoff, + More

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Navajo Nation Issues Vaccine Mandate For Tribal Workers – Associated Press

All Navajo Nation executive branch employees will need to be fully vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19 by the end of September or be required to submit to regular testing, according to an executive order announced by President Jonathan Nez on Sunday.

The new rules apply to full, part-time and temporary employees, including those working for tribal enterprises like utilities, shopping centers and casinos. Any worker who does not show proof of vaccination by Sept. 29 must be tested every two weeks or face discipline.

“The bottom line is that we do not want to have another large surge in new COVID-19 cases that would harm our health care system and lead to more lives lost," Nez said in a statement.

More than 80% of the tribe's workers are already fully vaccinated but Nez said getting the rest inoculated is needed to ensure the workforce on the reservation can serve tribal members.

The tribe that spans parts of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona reported just 30 news cases on Sunday and no new deaths. The Navajo Nation was hard hit by the virus and closed its reservation for months last year. The tribe has confirmed 32,252 COVID-19 cases and 1,397 deaths.

Vaccine appointments are widely available.

NM Farmers On Rio Grande Face Early Water Cutoff – Associated Press

Hundreds of farmers who rely on the water from the irrigation district that channels water along the Rio Grande in central New Mexico face a second straight year of early cutoffs.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District board voted Friday to end deliveries for irrigation a month early because of low water availability.

The Oct. 1 shutoff means winter crops like those grown by Travis Harris just north of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge about 90 miles south of Albuquerque are at risk.

“This is my livelihood,” Harris told the Albuquerque Journal. “This is how I live day to day for my family.”

Harris grows alfalfa and wheat just like his father and grandfather did, often planting cornfields as food for birds migrating along the Rio Grande.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District board said the shutoff is necessary because of long-term drought and a large water debt owed to southern New Mexico and Texas.

“We understand this could potentially cause people to lose their farms,” said board member Stephanie Russo Baca, who represents Valencia County. “We’re not taking it lightly.”

The district's decision is driven in part by the 1939 Rio Grande Compact, which governs river water deliveries among Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

New Mexico already owes about 43 billion gallons to downstream users under the compact, but if that deficit reaches 63 million gallons it could face more restrictions on accessing stored water from El Vado Reservoir.

Mike Hamman, the MRGCD’s CEO and chief engineer, said that a years-long cycle of accruing water debts during drought is not the answer for long-term water management.

“We’re digging a deep hole,” Hamman said.

Cutting irrigation diversions would help “chip our way out of this mess” of water debts, Hamman said. Doing so would increase deliveries to Elephant Butte Reservoir.

“Mother Nature is not providing (the water), so we have to adjust,” he said. “It’s not us taking it away from anybody, because the water is not even going to be there in October to do anything with, unless some miracle happens.”

The district has been dealing with shortages for years. It delayed this year’s spring irrigation season start date by a month, and last fall it also ended deliveries a month early.

Valencia County dairy farmer Mikey Smith said local agriculture “will not exist anymore” if the district does not re-examine how to equitably distribute water and evaluate inefficient water use by some irrigators.

“Some of the biggest dairies we never thought were going to go out, have all sold off,” Smith said. “They can’t afford to feed their animals.”

A longer irrigation season could have harmed New Mexico’s standing as Texas pursues U.S. Supreme Court litigation over water deliveries, said Chuck DuMars, the irrigation district's lawyer.

“It would not be good optics, if we had gone forward and continued to increase the debit,” DuMars said.

New Mexico School Districts Debate Masks, Local Control – Associated Press

New Mexico’s mask and vaccine requirements are drawing more fire from parents and officials as the school year begins and as COVID-19 cases continue to climb despite vaccination efforts.

Members of the public spoke to the Las Cruces school board for more than an hour this week, with most parents railing against the district’s masking policy.

In Carlsbad, citizens and elected officials demanded that the school district fight for control and do away with mask and vaccine requirements.

There are similar concerns in Albuquerque, Aztec and in Torrance County, where commissioners recently passed a resolution supporting local control and the authority of school boards to make decisions in the best interest of their students, staff and parents.

The school board that represents the rural district in Floyd already has been suspended by the state Public Education Department for not going along with state guidelines, and the legal fight that has ensued is having ripple effects around the state.

“Given the recent actions in Floyd and blatant disregard for the authority of elected officials, the commission felt it was time to step in and voice our support for local leaders who — unlike their Santa Fe counterparts — absolutely have our kids' best interests at heart,” Torrance County Commission Chairman Ryan Schwebach said following approval of a resolution earlier this week.

The commission also created a legal fund to help the Estancia school board fight to retain constitutional and legal authority after it voted to allow parents, students and teachers to choose whether to wear masks while attending in-person classes.

The Public Education Department and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham have argued that the guidelines are aimed at protecting children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine. The Democratic governor said during a briefing this week that the “tough but necessary” decisions will help curb the spread of the virus.

Despite the state's vaccination efforts, cases are on the rise in New Mexico, just as they are nationally. State officials have warned that daily case totals could surpass 1,000 later this month.

Members of the public spoke to the Las Cruces schools board for more than an hour Tuesday, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported.

Jenna Emerick, a mother of a 7-year-old, said she had a hard time not crying while picking up her daughter from school, seeing her in a mask.

“Forcing kids to wear masks causes stress in them. For our family, the stress was not worth the benefits,” said Emerick, who now home-schools her daughter.

Parents, citizens and officials recently gathered outside school district offices as the Carlsbad school board held a virtual meeting, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported. The crowd demanded that the district fight for control.

The board passed a resolution asking the Public Education Department to recognize and enhance authority.

“The NM PED may be restricting local school board management of local school districts in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ manner that may ultimately result in the elimination of school districts being managed locally and managed in a manner that reflects local community needs,” the resolution states.

The Aztec school board in northwestern New Mexico also has passed a resolution in support of the decision-making authority of school boards, the Farmington Daily Times reported.

Aztec Superintendent Kevin Summers told the newspaper that state education decisions are not one-size-fits-all, noting that what might work for Albuquerque might not work for Aztec or Taos.

 Retriever Gets Training To Be Taos Ski Valley Rescue Dog – Isabella Alves, Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Greeting everyone who passes, 12-week-old golden retriever puppy Finn learns to socialize with different people while his Taos Ski Patrol handler, Zack Anderson, monitors things carefully.

At 12 weeks, this is an important part of Finn’s training to become one of the ski valley’s avalanche rescue dogs. The program has from three to five dogs, and Finn is its newest addition.

Taos Ski Valley was one of the first Rocky Mountain resorts to have an avalanche dog program, CEO David Norden said. The program began in the 1980s, and he said it remains a critical part of the resort’s operations.

Finn came to Taos thanks to a grant from the Corey Borg-Massanari Foundation, the Albuquerque Journal reported. The foundation is in memory of Corey Borg-Massanari, 22, who died in Taos Ski Valley’s 2019 in-bounds avalanche. Finn is the foundation’s first avalanche dog grant.

Borg-Massanari was found by avalanche dog Izzy after the disaster. Corey’s mother, Bobbie Gorron, said that, because of Izzy, they were able to have four more days with Borg-Massanari before doctors said he wouldn’t survive.

“I want to do something because I want to make sure he’s never forgotten, and so … my whole reason for starting a foundation was to keep his name going and make sure no one forgot who he was,” Gorron said.

It was Borg-Massanari’s passion for the outdoors and love of dogs that inspired Gorron’s mission for the foundation to focus on outdoor safety. Gorron said they’re a dog-loving family regardless, but knowing what Izzy did for her son really drilled home the importance of avalanche dogs.

She said she wants Finn and Anderson to have all the resources available so Finn can have the training he needs to be the best that he can be.

For Anderson and Finn, this means making sure Finn has a solid obedience foundation – which the pair are already working on.

As Finn bounds up to play in the grass near the base of a ski lift, eating clover and sticks along the way, Anderson quickly grabs his focus and tells Finn to sit — which he does immediately. For a 12-week-old puppy, this is excellent, Anderson said.

At this age, Finn’s attention span is shorter, so getting him to sit and stay for a few seconds is huge.

“Most of his job is just to be a really good dog,” Anderson said. “We don’t kennel our pups, like a lot of working dogs … ours are kind of free roam, so he needs to have a good temperament … basic obedience is huge.”

This also includes introducing Finn to all the unique aspects of being an avalanche dog, such as riding on ski lifts, utility terrain vehicles and toboggans, Anderson said. Finn’s rescue training will likely start either this winter or next because he’ll be nine months old around February, which is still a little young.

That being said, a lot of the training is dog-dependent, so if Finn is ready to start this training, so is Anderson.

Finn comes from a long line of hunting dogs, which usually have a really high prey drive, Anderson said. Handlers use this drive in the dog’s training and job performance.

The dogs are very focused, Anderson said. “There’s nothing else going on in the world. You can be banging pots and pans, or shooting a gun … that dog does not care, it’s locked on to what its job is.”

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