THURS: Tribes Sue US Over Clean Water Rule, Camp Pauses Plans To House Migrants, + More

Apr 1, 2021

New Mexico Tribes Sue US Over Federal Clean Water Rule - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Two Indigenous communities in New Mexico are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over a revised federal rule that lifts protections for many streams, creeks and wetlands across the nation, saying the federal government is violating its trust responsibility to Native American tribes.

The pueblos of Jemez and Laguna are the latest to raise concerns over inadequate protections for local water sources in the desert Southwest. The challenge filed last week in federal court follows a similar case brought in 2020 by the Navajo Nation, the nation's largest Native American tribe, and several environmental groups.

Like other Indigenous communities, the Laguna and Jemez pueblos said in the court filing that waters flowing through their lands are used for domestic and agricultural purposes and are essential for cultural and ceremonial practices.

Removing or limiting access to clean water for both rural communities directly threatens to diminish tribal resources and adversely affect cultural practices, the lawsuit stated.

Both pueblos have small populations with poverty rates surpassing the national average. Laguna encompasses nearly 20 square miles just west of Albuquerque. Jemez Pueblo covers mountainous and desert regions in northern New Mexico.

The tribes argue that water holds a special value because of its scarcity in the arid Southwest. They describe the gullies, arroyos and seasonal streams inscribed into the landscape as "a vein of life" that channels rain or snowmelt to their communities.

"Any water pollution in and around the pueblos has a disproportionate impact because of the scarcity and preciousness of the resource in the region," the lawsuit stated.

The rule change, which took effect in June, narrowed the types of waterways that qualify for federal protection under the half-century-old Clean Water Act. As a result, critics have said that the number of waterways in New Mexico and other arid states in the West that were previously protected under the act were drastically reduced.

The Navajo Nation, environmental groups, public health advocates and some Western states that are waging their own legal battles over the rule have said the rollback left many of the nation's millions of miles of waterways more vulnerable to pollution since permits are no longer necessary for discharging pollution into many rivers, lakes and streams.

In adopting the change, federal officials argued last year that a previous Obama-era rule imposed unnecessary burdens on property owners and businesses and that the change would bring regulatory certainty for farmers, homebuilders and landowners.

Since January, the Biden administration has been reviewing numerous rules adopted over the last four years and is expected to reverse many of them.

New Mexico was among the states that went to court last May seeking to prevent the rule from taking effect.

At the time, New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney warned that the rule would leave nearly 90% of the state's rivers and streams and about 40% of its wetlands without federal protection.

He predicted that would "devastate New Mexico's scarce and limited water resources."

The state in comments previously submitted to the federal government noted that New Mexico has no state protections to fall back on. New Mexico is one of three states that do not have delegated authority from the EPA to regulate discharges of pollution into rivers, streams, and lakes.

Laguna Pueblo relies on the federal government to implement nearly all of the Clean Water Act's pollution programs on its behalf and does not have the financial or administrative capacity to administer the programs itself.

According to the lawsuit, up to 97% of Laguna waterways are affected and the pueblo has concerns about contamination upstream from past uranium mining and milling.

Jemez Pueblo depends on federal authority under the act to protect waters outside its jurisdiction. About 94% of the Jemez watershed was affected by the rule change.

New Mexico Oil, Gas Production Up By 10% Despite PandemicAssociated Press

New Mexico has reported that oil and gas production increased by more than 10% last year compared to the year before even as demands for fuel dropped during the coronavirus pandemic.

Data from the state's oil conservation division showed the state produced about 370 million barrels of oil in 2020 compared to about 330 million barrels of oil produced in 2019, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported Tuesday.

Although last year produced the highest amount of oil since the division began tracking production in the 1970s, officials said rate of growth dropped from a 33% increase between 2018, which yielded about 250 million barrels of oil, and 2019.

New Mexico also produced about 1.9 trillion cubic feet (14 trillion gallons) of natural gas, surpassing the 2001 record of 1.6 trillion cubic feet (12 trillion gallons), according to data.

However, natural gas production growth also declined, increasing about 7% between 2019 and last year compared to 19% between 2018 and 2019.

An annual report by the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association on revenue for the state by the industry said $2.8 billion was generated last year, including $1.4 billion for public education. The amount was second to the record $3.1 billion of state revenue generated in 2019.

Association spokesperson Robert McEntyre said New Mexico was a "focal point" of the industry last year despite the pandemic, as companies reanalyzed assets and focused on areas with high returns.

"The conclusion was that New Mexico was the place to continue to produce despite the market's declines. Producers are concentrating their investments and activities in the areas that are most prolific, and for many that meant New Mexico and the Permian Basin were top on the list," he said.

Navajo Nation Reports 5 More COVID-19 Cases, 5 More DeathsAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported five new COVID-19 cases and five deaths.

The tribe had reported no deaths in three of the previous four days and six of the last 11 days.

Tribal health officials said the latest figures bring the total number of cases since the pandemic started to 30,108 with the known death toll at 1,252.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

The Navajo Nation covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

"Our health care experts constantly caution the public and encourage our people to stay home as much as possible, wear masks, avoid large in-person gatherings, and to practice social distancing," tribal President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. "But if our people choose to do otherwise, then it's more likely that we will have a spike in new infections. Please adhere to the advice and of our public health experts."

Advocates Sue To Protect Monarchs, Northern Spotted OwlsAssociated Press

Wildlife advocates are suing federal officials in a bid for greater protections for monarch butterflies, northern spotted owls and eight other species inching toward possible extinction.

The move comes after federal officials have said previously that the species named in the lawsuit needed protections, but that other imperiled plants and animals had higher priority.

The Center for Biological Diversity asked a U.S. District Court in Washington on Thursday to order the Fish and Wildlife Service to move immediately to grant the species protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Other species in the lawsuit include the eastern gopher tortoise of the Southeast; a New Mexico chipmunk and three types of mussels in Texas.

New Mexico Court Rules On Military Pensions In Divorce CasesAssociated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled Thursday that state courts cannot order a veteran to reimburse a former spouse for a share of the veteran's military pension under a divorce agreement that ended when the veteran opted to receive disability benefits instead.

However, the justices' unanimous decision said trial judges can consider other legal options for adjusting the financial support the veteran provides his or her former spouse.

The New Mexico high court partly hinged its ruling on a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision. That decision prevented states from treating waived military retirement benefits as community property that can be divided in a divorce.

The former spouse of Jeffery Russ had asked a trial judge to order Russ to reimburse her for reduced alimony after his military retirement pay ended.

The ruling Thursday sent the case back to trial court for further consideration and noted that military disability benefits can be considered a source of income for family support.

Things To Know About Recreational Pot In New Mexico - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has promised to sign legislation that legalizes recreational marijuana use and sales in New Mexico for adults 21 and over.

The changes approved Wednesday by the Legislature mean almost any adult can grow marijuana at home for personal use — or for profit under a micro-license agreement.

The reforms also usher in a new era for marijuana as big business and make fundamental changes in law enforcement. Many past pot convictions will be wiped off the books, and the smell of weed is no longer grounds for police searches.

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CONSUMER RULES

The start of recreational cannabis sales is set for April 1, 2022 — no fooling.

Adults 21 and up can buy and carry outside the home up to 2 ounces of cannabis, with separate limits for extracts and edible products.

An ounce of marijuana fills a sandwich bag and can typically be rolled into nearly 30 joints or cigarettes.

Hobbyists can grow up to six marijuana plants for personal use, or 12 per household.

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PUBLIC CONSUMPTION

New indoor and outdoor venues for consuming marijuana are coming soon that might resemble bars or lounges. Those "cannabis consumption areas" will be licensed by the state for a fee.

Pot consumption will be allowed in designated hotel rooms, casinos, cigar bars and tobacco stores. In other public places, marijuana consumption will be treated much like alcohol or cigarettes.

Local governments can't ban pot businesses but they can set zoning requirements for business locations and hours. Existing medical marijuana dispensaries can't be easily dislodged.

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RETAIL PRICES

Advocates for medical cannabis patients say current pot prices in New Mexico are among the highest in the country, straining personal finances for some consumers. That should change as new legislation waives retail taxes on medical marijuana.

Chad Lozano, a former advocate for medical patients and future commercial cannabis producer, says prices for recreational marijuana in New Mexico will be relatively high at first compared with other states and should decline as the market matures.

He says state regulators have the authority to limit mass production and charge special licensing fees of up to $50 per plant annually. Those decisions could drive up retail prices.

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SOCIAL JUSTICE

New Mexico will set up an automated system for reviewing and expunging criminal records for past marijuana activities that are now legal. Lawmakers set aside a half-million dollars for courts to begin the process.

Those past offenses can no longer be used to bar a person from professional licenses or obtaining a job. Rough estimates show about 100 prison inmates might be pardoned.

New expungement and pardon procedures don't apply to convictions for trafficking large quantities of illicit marijuana.

Past drug convictions won't bar individuals from starting a licensed marijuana business, though it is a consideration. In the interest of equitable opportunity, the state will issue "micro-licenses" for a small fee for cultivation of up to 200 plants. Those businesses might come to resemble small craft breweries.

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TAXES, FEES

The state will levy a 12% excise tax on the sale of marijuana that eventually increases to 18%. That's before standard taxes on sales of 5-9%.

By conservative estimates, state and local tax income from recreational cannabis will surpass $45 million annually within three years. One-third of revenues goes toward local government.

Lawmakers haven't decided yet how to spend the money.

Democratic state Rep. Javier Martínez — lead architect of the state's legalization effort — wants to create a "rural equity fund" to provide support and possibly subsidies to growers from marginalized communities.

Republican state Sen. Cliff Pirtle has proposed using a share of marijuana excise tax dollars to help protect roadways from pot-impaired drivers, including research on drug-sobriety tests.

Democratic state Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an attorney with marijuana-industry clients, suggests directing half of the state income to New Mexico's multibillion-dollar trust funds for public education and infrastructure.

New Mexico Primed To Join US Recreational Pot Wave – Morgan Lee and Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

New Mexico’s Legislature has approved the legalization of recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older in a bill that the governor plans to sign.

The state House concurred with Senate amendments Wednesday to provide the Legislature’s final approval.

Lawmakers used a marathon two-day legislative session to push through marijuana legalization and a companion bill that automatically erase some past marijuana convictions and reconsider criminal sentences for about 100 prisoners, overriding skeptical Republicans.

 

By signing the bills, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham would authorize legal recreational pot sales by April 2022, when the New Mexico legislation kicks in, and join 16 states that have legalized marijuana, mostly through direct ballot initiatives.

Lujan Grisham called a special legislation this week to push for legalization of marijuana in efforts to spur employment and a stable new source of state income.

Under the advancing legalization package, New Mexico would levy an initial excise tax on recreational marijuana sales of 12% that eventually rises to 18%. That’s on top of current gross receipts on sales that range from roughly 5% to 9%.

 

Possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana would cease to be a crime, and people would be allowed six plants at home — or up to 12 per household.

 

The reforms would eliminate taxes on the sales of medical marijuana and seek to ensure adequate medicinal supplies.

 

Democrats Pick Melanie Stansbury To Seek Congressional Seat – Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Democratic Party leaders have picked state Rep. Melanie Stansbury as the nominee to defend an Albuquerque-based congressional seat left open by newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

Stansbury edged out state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez by four votes in runoff balloting among 200 members of the state central committee on the nomination.

The second-term legislator will confront Republican state Sen. Mark Moores in a June 1 special congressional election.

Democrats have held the 1st Congressional District seat since 2009. Of 199 central committee votes, Sedillo Lopez receive 74 endorsements and Stansbury got 43.

Stansbury has worked previously in Washington at the White House budget office and as a Senate committee staffer.

In 2018, she defeated a seven-term Republican incumbent as a wave of progressive female politicians joined the state House.

The district is seen as increasingly progressive. Republicans say they’ll seize on an opportunity to win in a possible low-turnout election.

The district encompasses Bernalillo County, rural Torrance County and portions of Sandoval and Valencia counties.

Authorities: Smugglers Drop 2 Children Over US Border Wall – Associated Press

Authorities say two Ecuadoran children were abandoned by smugglers after being dropped over a 14-foot-high barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday evening.

The toddler and her 5-year-old sister were unhurt, but officials with the U.S. Border Patrol called the incident near Santa Teresa, New Mexico, appalling.

It comes as the Biden administration struggles with finding space to house the several hundred kids and teenagers who are crossing the border daily.

In some cases, parents refused entry into the U.S. have sent their children across the border alone, hoping they eventually will be placed with relatives. As a result, holding facilities are packed, and the administration is scrambling to find more temporary housing options.

Authorities said Santa Teresa border agents were able to find the 3- and 5-year-old sisters after being directed by the camera operator to the remote location in New Mexico, just west of El Paso, Texas. The girls were alert but were taken to a hospital to be checked out and cleared. They currently remain at a Border Patrol temporary holding facility pending placement by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

Navajo Nation Has No COVID-19 Deaths For 6th Time In 11 Days – Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 15 new COVID-19 cases, but no deaths for the third time in the past four days and sixth time in the last 11 days.

Tribal health officials said the latest figures bring the total number of cases since the pandemic started to 30,095 with the known death toll remaining at 1,247.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

The Navajo Nation reservation covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Tribal president Jonathan Nez said in a statement that federal medical officials continue to caution against lifting restrictions too soon. He said the news of the British variant present on the reservation should motivate people to continue being cautious.

New Mexico State To Hold Limited In-Person Graduation Events – Associated Press

New Mexico State University has said it will hold limited in-person commencement events in May in addition to its previously planned virtual ceremony for its spring graduates.

Events will be held at Aggie Memorial Stadium in multiple sessions to comply with social distancing and capacity guidelines, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported Tuesday. Tickets will be required and students can have no more than two guests in attendance. Masks will be required for all graduates, volunteers and guests.

The in-person event will be broadcasted so people unable to attend can participate in both ceremonies. The virtual celebration on May 15 will take place regardless of in-person event plans.

Commencement activities for the university’s branch campuses will be determined by each campus.

“We know how much our students want an opportunity to celebrate together as they reach the life-changing milestone of completing their degrees,” NMSU President John Floros said.

The announcement came after discussions and guidance from the state Department of Health and the state Higher Education Department.

In-person event details are currently being finalized and additional information is expected to be announced, university officials said.

New Mexico Camp Pauses Plan To House Migrant Children - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

A private Christian camp in northern New Mexico won't be hosting immigrant children from the U.S.-Mexico border for the foreseeable future, camp officials said Thursday.

"At this point we're not moving forward as an (Emergency Intake Site) location," chief financial officer Patrick Price told The Associated Press.

Earlier this week, a page on the Glorieta Camps website had stated that the organization was asked by the White House and U.S. Health and Human Services Department to house and feed potentially 2,400 unaccompanied children at its property near Santa Fe.

Glorieta Camps officials had said Wednesday that the organization was prepared to take children this week but only for around 60 days to avoid curtailing its summer programs.

The White House is under increasing pressure to reduce crowding at immigration detention facilities, particularly those housing children. The Biden administration has scrambled to set up temporary shelters everywhere from military bases to convention centers and a converted camp for oil field workers.

The New Mexico camp is run by a Christian faith-based nonprofit called Glorieta 2.0. The sprawling property borders national forest land that includes hiking trails and vistas where visitors can commune with nature.

Camp employees and other groups had been calling on the public to help provide supplies and were seeking volunteers to help care for the kids. Social media posts and emails were requesting toiletries, bath towels, water bottles and clothes for 13- to 17-year-old boys.

Camp officials said Thursday they were encouraged by the response of supporters over recent days and that all donations and supplies received so far will be held until they get confirmation of if or when the camp may become a host site in the future. If that does not happen within a few months, the supplies will be sent to another site.

Private New Mexico Camp Preps To House Migrant Children – Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A private Christian camp in northern New Mexico is looking for volunteers and donations as it prepares for the potential arrival of immigrant children from the U.S.-Mexico border as federal holding facilities become more crowded.

Officials with Glorieta Camps confirmed Wednesday that they're in contract negotiations with the U.S. Health and Human Services Department to house and feed potentially 2,400 unaccompanied migrant children.

Josh Nelson with Glorieta Camps was unsure when a contract would be finalized. He said the camp is prepared to take children as soon as Thursday but that it could only do so for 60 days to avoid having to cancel its own summer programs.

President Joe Biden is under pressure to address immigration as thousands of children and families have been arriving at the border.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's office said Wednesday that it was aware only that the Biden administration was seeking temporary sites for unaccompanied children but didn't have any details or information about where or what facilities were being considered.

New Mexico To Open Up Vaccine Eligibility Next Week – Associated Press

New Mexico will be expanding vaccine eligibility next week to everyone 16 years of age and older, state health officials said Wednesday.

The federal government has directed states to make all adults eligible for COVID-19 vaccination by May 1. State Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said New Mexico will be meeting that mark April 5.

While the pace of vaccination has been limited by supply, Collins said federal officials have indicated that states should expect “meaningful increases” in supply over the coming weeks.

New Mexico continues to lead the U.S. in vaccine distribution, with nearly 1.2 million doses administered so far. The latest data from the state indicated that about 27% of residents 16 and older have been fully vaccinated while more than 44% have received their first shots.

Even though eligibility is expanding next week, the Health Department said it will continue to prioritize vaccinations for those who were in the first groups, including health care workers, nursing home staff and residents, people 75 and older and those New Mexicans with existing health conditions that put them at greater risk.

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