TUES: Tribes Talk with Haaland, Drought Continues in the West + More

Apr 6, 2021

Tribes Talk Priorities With 'Formidable Guardian' Haaland - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Native American leaders told U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland they see her as a "formidable guardian" and steward of their interests Tuesday during the pueblo woman's first official trip to her home state, an emotional visit that focused on pandemic relief and underscored the significance of her confirmation.

Dozens of tribal leaders gathered in the courtyard of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque for a discussion with Haaland, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo and members of the state's congressional delegation.

Tribal leaders told the group their prayers were answered when Haaland was chosen to head the Interior Department, which has broad authority over Native Americans. Haaland is the first-ever Native American cabinet secretary.

She wiped tears from her eyes during her introduction and received a standing ovation.

"Help is on the way," she told the group — a refrain that Joe Biden's administration has been echoing from coast to coast during the many visits White House officials and others have been making to tout the federal government's latest COVID-19 relief package.

Haaland reiterated that every federal agency must recognize its responsibilities to tribes. She also acknowledged the devastating effects of the pandemic on New Mexico's pueblos and said the Interior Department also lost employees to COVID-19.

She placed her hand over her heart as she listened to stories from pueblo leaders and took notes.

"I thank all of you for doing such an amazing job and getting your communities here in New Mexico vaccinated," Haaland said. "I know how difficult it has been to keep our people safe and healthy during this terrible pandemic."

More broadly, Haaland pressed for addressing climate change and moving toward a clean energy economy.

Tribal governors told Haaland that protecting Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico is a top priority, saying they are frustrated that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management hasn't done more to stem oil and gas development.

Tribes' expectations of Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, are wide-ranging, rooted in the federal government's past failures to uphold responsibilities etched in treaties and other acts. While many are hopeful her appointment will open the door to new possibilities, they acknowledge it will take time to address the systemic problems that have plagued their communities for generations.

Haaland is well-versed in the struggles of Indian Country when it comes to things like a lack of basic infrastructure, education achievement gaps, disproportionate health conditions and protecting sacred sites.

In New Mexico, Native Americans make up more than 10% of the population.

Haaland has pushed to ensure tribes are consulted regularly and meaningfully on federal policies and projects that affect them. But some Native Americans see her leadership as a chance to ask for more, to move from consultation to consent and to put more land in the hands of tribal nations either outright or through stewardship agreements.

Zuni Gov. Val Panteah Sr. said he's encouraged that Biden's administration has promised to listen to tribes on how to spend federal virus relief funding and on protecting places like Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah. Haaland is expected to visit the monument later this week.

"This is something that we needed for so long, and it gives us an opportunity to share and recommend and tell these departments that are so vital to our communities what our needs are," he said.

Democrats have billed the money set aside for Native American communities in the $1.9 trillion federal recovery package as the country's largest, single investment in Indian Country.

About $20 billion will go to tribal governments to help them keep combating the virus and to stabilize community safety-net programs.

More than $2.3 billion is specifically dedicated to COVID-19 testing, tracing and vaccination efforts, while $600 million will go toward health facilities construction and sanitation programs.

Another $420 million will boost mental and behavioral health programs, and $140 million will be tapped for tribal technology improvements and tele-health access.

The package also includes money for housing projects, the expansion of broadband access and other infrastructure and educational programs.

Tribal governors also met recently with U.S. Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, when he toured a vaccination clinic at Santo Domingo Pueblo in northern New Mexico. They said the pandemic has highlighted the chronic underfunding of the federal Indian Health Service, which provides primary care to millions of Native Americans.

The All Pueblo Council of Governors is made up of tribal leaders from 20 New Mexico pueblos and an Indigenous community near El Paso, Texas.

The group advocates on behalf of Native American issues, ranging from educational equity within public schools to limiting oil and gas development in areas considered sacred.

Study: Drought-breaking Rains More Rare, Erratic in US West -- By Matthew Brown,  Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Rainstorms grew more erratic and droughts much longer across most of the U.S. West over the past half-century as climate change warmed the planet, according to a sweeping government study released Tuesday that concludes the situation is worsening.

The most dramatic changes were recorded in the desert Southwest, where the average dry period between rainstorms grew from about 30 days in the 1970s to 45 days between storms now, said Joel Biederman, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southwest Watershed Research Center in Tucson, Arizona.

The consequences of the intense dry periods that pummeled areas of the West in recent years were severe — more intense and dangerous wildfires, parched croplands and not enough vegetation to support livestock and wildlife. And the problem appears to be accelerating, with rainstorms becoming increasingly unpredictable, and more areas showing longer intervals between storms since the turn of the century compared to prior decades, the study concludes.

The study comes with almost two-thirds of the contiguous U.S. beset by abnormally dry conditions. Warm temperatures forecast for the next several months could make it the  worst spring drought in almost a decade, affecting roughly 74 million people  across the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

Water use cutbacks, damaged wheat crops, more fires and lower reservoirs in California and the Southwest are possible, weather service and agriculture officials have warned. Climate scientists are calling what's happening in the West a continuation of a "megadrought" that started in 1999.

While previous research documented a decline in total rainfall for much of the West, the work by Biederman and colleagues put more focus on when that rain occurs. That has significant implications for how much water is available for agriculture and plants such as grasses that have shallow roots and need a steadier supply of moisture than large trees.

"Once the growing season starts, the total amount of rainfall is important. But if it comes in just a few large storms, with really long dry periods in between, that can have really detrimental consequences," study co-author Biederman said in an interview.

The total amount of rain in a year doesn't matter to plants — especially if rains come mostly in heavy bursts with large run-off — but consistent moisture is what keeps them alive, said UCLA meteorologist Daniel Swain, who writes a weather blog about the West and was not part of the study.

The new findings were published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Researchers led by University of Arizona climate scientist Fangyue Zhang compiled daily readings going back to 1976 from 337 weather stations across the western U.S. and analyzed rainfall and drought data to identify the changing patterns.

Other parts of the region that saw longer and more variable droughts included the southwest Rocky Mountains, the Colorado Plateau and the Central Plains.

The rainfall study is in line with data that shows climate change already is affecting the planet.

"Climate models project that the American Southwest is very likely to experience more frequent and more severe droughts," said William Anderegg, a University of Utah biologist and climate scientist. "This study and other recent work demonstrates that this dry down has already begun."

The weather station data that was used in the study represents "the gold standard' for an accurate understanding of changes being driven by climate change, said Christopher Field, an earth systems scientist and director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

States in the northwestern U.S. were largely spared from the accelerating cycles of drought. The researchers observed total annual rainfall amounts and shorter intervals between drought in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and portions of Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas.

That's consistent with predicted changes in weather patterns driven by climate change in which the jet stream that brings moisture from the Pacific Ocean shifts northward, they said.


Associated Press writer Seth Borenstein contributed from Kensington, Maryland.

Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP__

Read stories on climate issues by The Associated Press at https://apnews.com/hub/climate

Expanded Vaccine Eligibility Begins In New Mexico - Associated Press 

All New Mexicans age 16 or older who wish to be vaccinated against the coronavirus now have a chance to receive their shots, as Monday marked the start of expanded eligibility under the state Department of Health's distribution plan. 

The timeline for getting more shots out to the general public was sped up under a directive by the Biden administration to make all adults in the U.S. eligible by May 1. State officials also said they opened up eligibility because providers in some parts of the state were no longer able to find people to fill appointments.

Still, state health officials said those who were part of the earlier phases will be prioritized. That includes health care workers, nursing home residents and staff, and older New Mexicans with health conditions that put them at greater risk. 

More than 30% of New Mexico's eligible population has been fully vaccinated. State data also shows that about 48% of residents have received their first shot.

Researchers at University of New Mexico Health Sciences announced Friday they plan to participate in a national clinical trial to test the safety and effectiveness of the Moderna vaccine in children.

Walter Dehority, an infectious disease specialist at the pediatrics department at UNM, said the project is awaiting final regulatory approval before launching. If approved, the trial would involve 6,750 children between the ages of 6 months and 12 years and participants would be followed for a year after the second vaccination.

Although most children appear to suffer few or no symptoms when infected with the coronavirus, Dehority contends there are still reasons to get them vaccinated. He said having children vaccinated would boost herd immunity among the overall population.

New Mexico health officials didn't release any COVID-19 numbers during the Easter weekend. On Monday, they announced there were 199 new cases and two deaths Saturday and 170 additional cases on Sunday with 96 cases and no deaths Monday.

The updated numbers pushed the state's totals to 192,595 coronavirus cases and 3,953 known deaths since the pandemic began.

Navajo Nation Confirms 6 New COVID-19 Cases, But No Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Monday reported six new confirmed COVID-19 cases, but no deaths. 

The latest figures bring the pandemic totals on the tribe's reservation, which includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, increased to 30,178 cases and 1,258 known deaths. 

Tribal President Jonathan Nez has reminded people that one virus variant has been confirmed to be on the Navajo Nation. 

In a statement, Nez says it's crucial to keep sticking to mitigation measures including wearing masks, social distancing and constant handwashing. 

Tribal leaders plan to hold a virtual town hall Tuesday to give more updates.

All New Mexico Schools Move To In-person Learning This Week - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

All New Mexico public school districts are expected to be open for in-person learning this week, with the largest district welcoming students back Monday with some hiccups due to a shortage of bus drivers.

Medium-sized districts in Santa Fe, Las Cruces, Las Vegas, and other cities will offer full-time in-person learning starting Tuesday, with some grade levels in some districts staggered later in the week. 

The state's push to reopen gives the vast majority of parents the option of sending their children back to school after more than a year of struggling with child care, unmet special needs, at-home internet, and more report cards marked with Fs.

Districts are warning students that school won't be the same as before the pandemic. 

They've been told to bring their laptops back and forth each day in case an outbreak shuts down their school again. With fountains shut off, they should bring water bottles. Hugs are banned and masks are required.

Parents who don't feel safe sending students back are allowed to keep them in remote classes this semester. At Las Vegas City Schools in northern New Mexico, around 60-70% of students will stay in remote learning. In Santa Fe, around 50% will attend in person.

In the state's largest district, Albuquerque, some parents may be unable to send their children to school in person because transportation hasn't been secured for a few of the bus routes, including some elementary schools.

"APS doesn't have enough bus drivers to resume all routes, so it's prioritizing transportation for students and areas with the highest needs. Walking groups and carpools are encouraged as safe options, and students can ride city buses for free," the district warned in social media posts last week.

All but three buses ran Monday morning, said APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta, despite a rash of contractors quitting or calling in sick over the weekend.

Albuquerque Police Department Gilbert Gallegos said he wasn't aware of any major traffic issues Monday morning stemming from the parent drop-offs.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham shuttered schools in March 2020 as the coronavirus swept across the U.S. Schools were slated to partially reopen in the fall, but few schools did as COVID-19 cases peaked, and the state adopted one of the strictest lockdowns in the nation.

Lujan Grisham marked Monday's reopening by visiting an elementary school in Los Alamos, and Education Secretary Ryan Stewart visited a charter school in Gallup, their spokeswomen said.

Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Scott Elder had warned in January that it would take around 30 days to restart bus driver contracts dormant during the pandemic. Elder's school board further delayed the task of rehiring drivers when it voted down proposals for hybrid in-person learning in February.

On March 8, state education officials announced that schools would need to reopen during the first week of April. State health officials pushed hard to vaccinate the vast majority of teachers last month.

Micro-districts accounting for around 1% of the student population have been open for full-time, in-person learning throughout the state since September, under an exception to the health order for districts with less than 100 students.

Indigenous Leaders Laud New Mexico's School Funding Measure - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

Tribal leaders on Monday welcomed Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's signature of a bill that will increase funding for schools serving Native American and military communities across New Mexico. 

"This change is going to be a generational change," Zuni Pueblo Gov. Val Panteah said during a signing ceremony outside the state capitol, where he addressed Democratic leaders who passed the bill during this year's legislative session. "I thank you on behalf of Zuni people, and Zuni kids."

The law eliminates a state credit that deducted 75% of federal funding from state funding that schools received to compensate them for serving communities with large tracts of federal land.

The struggle to eliminate the credit for the federal funds, known as Impact Aid, was felt for decades across the state's nearly two dozen tribal nations. It led to a federal court ruling against the state's funding formula last year.

State leaders, in turn, thanked Native American leaders for pressuring them to change the system.

"I want to thank the people who have literally fought for their entire careers to make this happen," Lujan Grisham said.

Zuni school board member Anthony Lucio said it was a lawsuit filed by his community that made it happen. He served as staff to the tribal government when the legal challenge began 1998. "I'm thankful to all of the Zuni people and to our ancestral spirits," he said.

School districts cannot tax tribal reservations, military bases or other federal property. Instead, the federal government funds schools at a fixed rate. That means that, unlike other schools, they can't ask voters to raise taxes to increase school funding.

The bill also eliminated credits taken from districts that do raise local taxes, leading to concern during the session that the equalization funding policies that have guided school funding since the 1970s may be undone, and inequality between districts could increase. 

Both sides of the funding feud celebrated a resolution through state lawmaking instead of federal court. 

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, thanked tribal leaders for "grabbing me by the lapels" to pass the new law. 

Lujan Grisham also celebrated the reopening of many schools Monday and credited the strict pandemic lockdowns on tribal lands for saving lives.

Amid plenty of sunshine and New Mexico spring winds, Monday's bill signing marked one of the largest gathering of tribal leaders in person since the pandemic began. 

"It's nice to see your faces outside of Zoom," Panteah told fellow tribal leaders.

The governor also signed a measure aimed at funneling more funding to schools in high poverty areas as part of a pilot program. 

The Legislature appropriated $15 million for the Family Income Index for each of the next two years. That will be divided among schools selected for a pilot, funding them for reading and math interventions as well as other student supports such as hiring school counselors and social workers and creating family resource centers.

New Child Support Law Brings New Mexico Into Compliance - Associated Press

A measure signed into law Monday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham modernizes New Mexico's child support law, bringing the state into compliance with federal regulations and national best practices. 

State officials said the changes will keep New Mexico from losing out on more than $147 million in federal money that could provide temporary aid for low-income families. 

The legislation updates the state's statute to align with federal rules that are based on the combined parents' actual income and the non-custodial parents' ability to pay. It also allows the state to focus on providing employment opportunities and job security to help non-custodial parents meet their obligations.

Lujan Grisham said the law will result in more support for New Mexico kids.

"Teaming up with parents to find jobs and set child support orders that are affordable is a better way to increase consistent child support payments for New Mexico children," she said in a statement. "Working parents who don't live with their kids will be able to build stronger relationships with them when they feel good about being able to financially support them."

The governor's office pointed to studies that show non-custodial parents who owe less child support debt have significantly more contact with their children and are more effective parents.

The new law also adjusts the timetable for assessing fees and costs as well as for assessing retroactive child support arrears, reducing it from 12 years to three years. The court may assess for a longer period if there's evidence that an action to establish paternity could not have been brought before the court any sooner.

New Mexico Adopts New Law To Fight Hairstyle Discrimination Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed into law legislation that prohibits discrimination based on traditional hairstyles and head coverings.

It's known nationally as the "Crown Act" and was conceived as a measure to protect African Americans from discrimination based on natural or traditional hairstyles.

In New Mexico, it won support from a broader coalition, including Native American and religious advocates.

Traditional hairstyles and religious coverings under the new law cannot be prohibited in work or school dress codes or used as an excuse to turn someone down for a job.

Amy Whitfield, director of the state Office of African American Affairs, said those who testified during the legislative session on behalf of the legislation illustrated the effects of racial discrimination based on hair and its compounding effects on potential opportunities.

"The advocates of this bill should be commended for their articulation of the importance and necessity for this legislation to pass, through their shared experiences on the collective damage sustained through this type of discrimination," Whitfield said.

Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo called the legislation long overdue, saying there's no place for discrimination against students based on race or culture.

"We must do better to ensure our cultural heritage is respected," she said. "The passage of this legislation helps to ensure that racial inequities concerning hair and cultural headdresses are no more and that this type of discrimination will no longer be accepted or tolerated in our schools."