WED: Western States Chart Diverging Paths As Water Shortages Loom, + More

Mar 10, 2021

Western States Chart Diverging Paths As Water Shortages Loom - By Sophia Eppolito and Felicia Fonseca Associated Press/Report for America

As persistent drought and climate change threaten the Colorado River, several states that rely on the water acknowledge they likely won't get what they were promised a century ago.

But not Utah.

Republican lawmakers approved an entity that could push for more of Utah's share of water as seven Western states prepare to negotiate how to sustain a river serving 40 million people. Critics say the legislation, which the governor still must sign, could strengthen Utah's effort to complete a billion-dollar pipeline from a dwindling reservoir that's a key indicator of the river's health.

Other states have had similar entities for decades, but Utah's timing raised questions about its commitment to conservation and finding a more equitable way of surviving with less.

"There's a massive disconnect all centered around climate change," said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, which opposed the legislation. "The other six basin states know the Colorado River is dropping, and they know they have to decrease their usage, while Utah is running around in this fantasy."

The river supplies Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico as well as a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry. As the states face a dire environmental future and negotiations over a new plan to protect the waterway from drought, it's forced a shift in thinking.

The goal of renegotiating is figuring out how to use less, "not staking out political turf to try to figure out how to use more," said John Fleck, director of University of New Mexico's Water Resources Program.

"It's just not clear Utah has a willingness to do that," he said.

The six members of the Colorado River Authority of Utah would oversee the state's negotiations on the drought plan and other rules that expire in 2026. Opponents worry parts of the legislation would allow the authority to avoid scrutiny by keeping some documents secret and permitting closed meetings.

House Speaker Brad Wilson said Utah will pursue conservation, but that alone won't meet the needs of one of the nation's fastest-growing states. Utah is entitled to the water under longstanding agreements among the states.

"We just need to make sure that as we kind of preserve and protect our interests in the Colorado River, that we have the expertise and the tools we need at our disposal to do that," Wilson said.

The bill comes six months after the other states rebuked Utah's plan to build an underground pipeline that would transport billions of gallons of water 140 miles (225 kilometers) from Lake Powell to a region near St. George, Utah, close to the Arizona border.

Utah began pursuing the pipeline 15 years ago to serve the city that's seen a 23% population jump since 2010, according to census figures, likely driven by a warm climate, red rock landscape and outdoor recreation. The project is under federal review.

Water experts worry Utah, which experienced its driest year ever in 2020, is banking on water that might not be available and could further deplete Lake Powell. Utah is one of the so-called upper basin states that get their share of water based on percentages of what's available but historically haven't used it all. The lower basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — get specific amounts that are subject to cuts.

Utah plans to tap 400,000 acre-feet of water on top of the 1 million acre-feet it typically uses. An acre-foot is enough to serve one to two average households a year.

"Using more out of the Colorado River system might be on some piece of paper somewhere as a legal entitlement, but it is not a practical reality in the system that we've got today," said James Eklund, former director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, an interstate agency that helps states administer water rights.

With conservation in mind, states have passed laws focused on safeguarding other water supplies.

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey recently signed a bill allowing farmers, ranchers and others to file a conservation plan and not lose their full water entitlements. Colorado and New Mexico also have eased up on "use it or lose it" laws.

The Arizona law doesn't affect the Colorado River but could boost water in other streams and rivers for wildlife habitat, recreation or city use.

"Everyone in the state needs to take a good, long look at the water that they're using and how much water they expect to use in the future and how to properly manage that so we can have long-term water security for everybody," said Kim Mitchell of Western Resource Advocates, which supported the Arizona bill.

Utah isn't alone in a history of lawsuits, disagreements and posturing to defend its share of water, though much of it recently has come from lower basin states that use most of their water.

The Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California, which holds the single largest share of Colorado River water, refused to join the drought plan without federal money to address a briny inland sea that's become a health hazard as evaporation leaves behind contaminated dust. The Salton Sea also will be a sticking point in renegotiations, the district said.

Southern Nevada has built a pipeline near the bottom of Lake Mead to ensure taps will keep flowing to Las Vegas homes and casinos even if the reservoir no longer can deliver water to Arizona, California and Mexico.

And Native Americans want to ensure their voices aren't missing from talks as they say they have been in the past. The 29 tribes in the Colorado River basin collectively hold rights to about 20% of its flow.

"The days of tribes standing silently by as the federal government, states and other entities set the terms for managing and distributing water to which our people are entitled and depend upon for survival are over," Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said in a statement.

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Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. Sam Metz in Carson City, Nevada, contributed to this story. Metz and Eppolito are corps members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Police Arrest Man Suspected In NJ Slaying And 4 Deaths In NM - By Susan Montoya Bryan and David Porter Associated Press

A man sought in the killings of four people in New Mexico and one in New Jersey was arrested Wednesday morning in St. Louis, the U.S. Marshals Service said.

Investigators were seeking Sean Lannon in connection with a slaying Monday in southern New Jersey. The 47-year-old also is a person of interest in the deaths of his ex-wife and three men whose bodies were found last week in a vehicle at an Albuquerque, New Mexico airport garage.

Albuquerque police said they will travel to St. Louis to interview Lannon about the New Mexico deaths.

Authorities considered Lannon armed and dangerous, and the marshals service had offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. The Gloucester County prosecutor's office had said Lannon may have been driving a 2018 blue Honda CRV and was possibly seen Monday afternoon in Camden, New Jersey.

Authorities didn't immediately offer details on what led them to Lannon Wednesday.

Lannon was charged with burglary and possession of a weapon after allegedly forcing entry into a home Monday in Elk Township, New Jersey, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Philadelphia, the prosecutor's office said. It was not clear on Wednesday if Lannon had an attorney.

He is also a suspect in a killing on Monday in East Greenwich, New Jersey, about 12 miles (19 kilometers) north of the site of the alleged burglary. Acting Gloucester County Prosecutor Christine Hoffman said Wednesday upgraded charges would be filed against Lannon.

Lannon also is a person of interest in the deaths of his ex-wife and three men whose bodies were found last week in a vehicle at the Albuquerque International Sunport garage, police said.

Albuquerque police said three of the people were reported missing since January from Grants, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) west of the city.

Authorities have said that the bodies of Jennifer Lannon, 39, Matthew Miller, 21, Jesten Mata, 40, and Randal Apostalon, 60, were found inside a car parked on the top level of the garage on Friday. The cause of death wasn't immediately clear.

According to Grants Police, Jennifer Lannon, Miller and Mata were friends, and Apostalon lived out of his car and was known to give rides for money. The bodies were found in Apostalon's car.

Police had posted on Facebook last month that they were seeking a different suspect in connection with the disappearances of Jennifer Lannon, Miller and Mata. Authorities did not offer further information about that potential suspect on Wednesday.

"There's a lot of aspects to this. We're still finding out information as we're going forward with this investigation. There are some things we can not release at this time," Grants police Lt. David Chavez said.

Property records show Lannon's most recent address is in Grants, with numerous addresses in southern New Jersey prior to 2020. The couple filed for bankruptcy in federal court in New Jersey in 2015 and listed personal property assets of roughly $14,000 and liabilities of more than $550,000, including $83,000 in student loan debt.

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Porter reported from New York.

From Bus Drivers To Prom, New Mexico Schools Work To Reopen

By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report for America

Educators across New Mexico are preparing to welcome K-12 students back to the classroom full-time now that teachers are becoming prioritized for vaccines and state leaders are offering students the option to study in-person five days a week by April 5.

There are logistics to sort out, from identifying teachers with health risks to rehiring furloughed bus drivers. But on the whole, school administrators told The Associated Press in a series of interviews that they are jubilant.

"We're ecstatic to get to come back 100%. Not sure we'll get all the kids back, you know, some will still choose to work remotely, but we're ecstatic," said Superintendent Todd Lindsay of the Carrizozo Municipal School District in southern New Mexico.

Pojoaque Superintendent Sondra Adams got the news while on spring break as she was visiting her daughter and grandsons in South Carolina. She spent much of the evening holding remote meetings with staff.

"I have a lot running through my head," said Adams. "Our buildings are prepared, our staff on campus are prepared."

Just a few weeks ago, the district decided to stay remote-only and had to tell athletes they wouldn't have a season. Now she'll have to survey parents to see who wants to remain in remote learning. She also has to give staff with disabilities a chance to request exemptions from in-person learning. In districts of a similar size, there have only been a handful of requests.

Adams is grateful the district got to skip experiments with hybrid learning, in which teachers were expected to teach students in-person and remotely simultaneously.

"By going full in-person it's really much easier," she said.

In the tiny Corona school district in Lincoln County, all 63 students have been attending school in-person full time since September under an exception to the public health order for districts with less than 100 students.

Superintendent Travis Lightfoot said he's happy that other districts get to return to in-person learning, too. And he wants larger schools to know that in-person learning during the pandemic has been easier than he and his staff thought.

"We were a bit apprehensive of how students were going to react to having to wear masks for the entire day of instruction," Lightfoot said. "But yet, I think our kids were so excited to get back and to get that social interaction that we really haven't had any issues with students not complying with safety protocols."

There have been no reported cases of COVID-19 among staff or students at Corona, he said.

With just over 100 students, the Carrizo district didn't qualify for the exception and has been grappling with hybrid learning.

"We're ready. Only problem is I'm short bus drivers right now," he said.

In Las Cruces, the community is mourning the recent loss of Superintendent Karen Trujillo, who was struck and killed by a car while walking her dogs. She was known for guiding the district through multiple crises and building consensus.

It's unclear how many Las Cruces families want to go back to school in person, and the school board still needs to weigh in on a plan for ramping up in-person learning.

"I think it's cautious excitement," said district spokeswoman Kelly Jameson. "A lot of leaders in the district are struggling to provide a plan that keeps everyone happy. That was one of the legacies of Dr. Trujillo — she created a model that addressed every student and every teacher during this unprecedented pandemic."

She said students are already asking about prom and if there will be graduation ceremonies, but more clarification will be needed from state officials.

There are still questions about higher education.

New Mexico Sen. George Muñoz said it's time for public universities to quickly reopen in-person learning, noting that public schools have scheduled an April return to classrooms in his hometown of Gallup, a trading post community on the edge of the Navajo Nation that has been badly battered by COVID-19.

He suggested that colleges are locking in cost savings without adequately preparing for in-person learning.

"We will look at numbers and see if they (state universities) are overfunded for the year," said Muñoz, chairman of the lead Senate budget-writing committee.

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Associated Press writer Morgan Lee contributed to this report.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

New Mexico Ban On Traps And Wildlife Poisons Clears SenateAssociated Press

A New Mexico measure that would prohibit traps, snares and wildlife poisons from being used on public lands across cleared the Democratic-led Senate late Tuesday.

The legislation passed despite four Democrats from rural areas breaking with their party and voting in opposition. Two Republicans from the Albuquerque area voted in favor.

The measure stills need House approval and lawmakers have less than two weeks remaining in the legislative session.

Environmentalists and animal advocacy groups have said New Mexico needs to join neighboring states and ban what they described as a cruel and outdated practice.

But rural residents and wildlife conservation officers have said that trapping remains an important tool for managing wildlife and protecting livestock.

New Mexico already has taken some steps to rein in the practice. The state Game Commission last year adopted changes that call for trappers to complete an education course and imposed restrictions on setting traps and snares around designated trailheads and on select tracts of public lands to reduce the trap hazards to hikers and pets.

But supporters of the legislation have said several dogs have been injured despite the new rules and that more should be done to ensure public safety, especially because New Mexico is pushing to promote outdoor recreation.

Under the legislation, violations of the proposed trapping ban would be misdemeanors, punishable by fines of up to $1,000 and/or jail time of less than one year.

Each individual trap, snare or application of poison would constitute a single violation, and a court could require restitution to be paid to the state's wildlife management agency.

New Mexico Legislature Approves Liquor License Overhaul - Associated Press

The New Mexico Legislature sent a bill to the governor that would overhaul state liquor regulations in an effort to invigorate the hospitality industry.

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The Senate voted 29-11 Tuesday to approve the bill, and the House quickly agreed to recent amendments. 

The measure would legalize liquor deliveries when accompanied by food and expand restaurant alcohol licenses that meet local ordinances to include not only beer and wine but also spirits with a 10 p.m. cutoff.

Tastings would be allowed at craft distilleries.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham set the legislation as a priority at the start of the legislative session.

Lawmakers advanced the legislation amid concerns about economic stagnation under a 40-year-old system of closely guarded monopolies on licenses for packaged liquor sales that routinely sell for more than $300,000 and serve as family inheritances.

Those license holders are being offered up to $200,000 in tax deductions over a four-year period, along with waivers on annual license fees.

Lost state income from the tax deduction would be offset by a new 2% excise tax on individual drink sales.

A string of Senate amendments would do away with Sunday morning restrictions on alcohol sales and require that the state study the effects of home alcohol deliveries on public health.

New Mexico To Waive Liquor Fees As Part Of COVID Relief - Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday signed legislation that will allow the state to waive annual liquor license fees as businesses struggle to rebound amid the pandemic. 

The governor said the food and beverage industry is a key piece of the state's economy. 

"These businesses anchor so many of our communities — and as we continue to move ever closer to ending the worst of this pandemic, I am confident this state support will help as they bounce back as quickly as possible," she said in a statement.

Under the legislation, the next annual fee for renewed liquor licenses and for all new licenses issued in this year will be waived. With license fees topping as much as several thousand dollars annually, state officials estimate the waivers will save businesses in New Mexico roughly $3.5 million.

The governor also has signed other relief measures passed by the Legislature this session, including a bill that makes available $200 million in grants to small businesses, another providing $500 million in low-cost loans and a four-month gross receipts tax holiday for food and drink establishments.

Supporters Clash On New Mexico Recreational Pot Legalization - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Two competing proposals to legalize marijuana in New Mexico — one from a Republican, the other from a Democrat — have emerged from a bargaining session among legislators on Tuesday, amid efforts to balance demands of incumbent medical marijuana producers with calls for new economic opportunity.

Two other competing proposals were abandoned, and a Senate committee advanced a legalization proposal from Republican state Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell that promises independent regulatory oversight by a Cannabis Control Board, with minimal license fees and taxes on pot sales along with limitless crops and business licenses.

Pirtle asked Senate colleagues to let the free market for marijuana thrive and produce low-priced marijuana to stamp out the illicit market. Small industry players would be guaranteed shelf space at retail outlets, he said.

At the same time, the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has stepped in to broker a compromise with an alliance of medical marijuana producers that want the state to extend its cap on cultivation to guard against a supply glut if pot is legalized.

Linda Trujillo, the governor-appointed superintendent of regulation and licensing, authored new provisions to a House-approved bill that allows state intervention when "market equilibrium" is reached to restrict the number of cannabis plants grown and new licenses.

"We are putting in here the possibility that the department could, in fact, limit the plant count, but it would require the department to do an analysis," Trujillo told a committee.

That provision was attached to a bill from Democratic Rep. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque that places an emphasis on helping communities adversely affected by marijuana criminalization, with automatic procedures for expunging charges and convictions for cannabis possession and releasing inmates held on possession infractions.

The fate of the two surviving bills is in the hands of the Senate judiciary committee, where majority Democrats last year joined Republicans in blocking legalization.

Proposals legalizing recreational cannabis sales to adults 21 and older emerged after weeks of rocky negotiations on whether to extend cannabis cultivation limits that have helped sustain small-scale medical marijuana producers but led to complaints of inflated retail prices.

Whether legislators can reach a compromise to send to Lujan Grisham, who supports recreational marijuana, is an open question amid stubbornly divergent views for legalization.

Legislators are confronting a March 20 deadline, when the state's annual legislative session ends, to craft recreational marijuana rules while preserving a supply chain to the existing medical cannabis program for roughly 100,000 patients — and setting up ground rules for a larger recreational pot industry.

Doing so requires lawmakers to make complex decisions about taxation, child access and home-grown cannabis.

Republican state Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho, a proponent of legalization, blasted the Democrat-sponsored legalization for favoring current marijuana producers with a monthslong head start in the licensing process. He said licensing fees of up to $125,000 per business, with an additional $50 per-plant fee, make the industry inaccessible.

"I think it's protecting the license holders that have it now," he said. "We're really not making it accessible and making it where just the average person can get in."

Advocates for the approach say most licenses will cost less and that per-plant fees would be waived for specialized micro-producers.

Most recreational marijuana laws in the U.S. have been approved via ballot initiatives but New Mexico's Constitution prohibits that. Only Illinois and Vermont have legalized marijuana through the legislative process and Virginia's Legislature in February sent a legalization bill to a supportive Democratic governor.

Carly Wolf, states policy manager with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said that support for home-grown marijuana, a provision of the bill from Democrats, extends beyond hobbyists to people concerned about unnecessary police searches.

"An important thing with home cultivation is the removal of the odor of marijuana as grounds to search and enter people's homes," Wolf noted.

The two competing bills defer to communities on zoning issues regarding operating hours and locations. Some are concerned small-town marijuana shops near New Mexico's state line with Texas, where recreational marijuana is prohibited, could drive Texans to New Mexico in droves to buy weed.

New Mexico voters last year ousted many incumbent Democratic state senators who adamantly opposed legalization.

Last year, voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota approved ballot measures for recreational cannabis. Mississippi approved creating a medical marijuana program.

Lujan Grisham has emphasized recreational marijuana's potential for improving employment and economic development in a state economy that some say is overly reliant on oil and natural gas production.

Albuquerque Gets New Police Chief, Reform Superintendent Associated Press

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller says he went both inside and outside the Albuquerque Police Department for leadership to fight crime and reform the organization.

Keller on Monday announced his selection of interim Chief Harold Medina to be the new chief and Sylvester Stanley, currently chief of Isleta Pueblo, as superintendent of police reform, a new position.

Medina was named interim chief with the departure of the previous chief in late 2020.

Medina will focus on core crime-fighting activities, recruiting police officers and building morale. Stanley will oversee discipline of officers as well as the department's academy and Internal Affairs division and work with the U.S. Department of Justice.

"It takes both an insider and an outsider to strike the right balance on the dual challenges of crime-fighting and police reform," Keller said.

Medina is the first Hispanic to be Albuquerque's police chief since 2001.

Both Medina and Stanley will report to the city's chief administrative officer, Sarita Nair.    

Clean Fuel Proposal Gets Green Light From New Mexico Panel - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico would join California and Oregon with a statewide clean fuel standard under legislation that has the backing of environmentalists and top Democrats in the state. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has been pushing the proposal as a way to meet her carbon reduction goals. 

Her administration says the transportation sector amounts to the second-largest greenhouse gas-emitter in New Mexico and that targeting fuel could make a difference. 

Critics say it will lead to higher gas prices in the poverty-stricken state. 

The state Senate Finance Committee advanced the bill on a party-line vote Tuesday. 

The measure still needs the approval of the full Senate and the House before lawmakers adjourn in less than two weeks. With the clock ticking, some say the bill could be fast-tracked by the Democrat-led Legislature since it's a priority of the governor.


 

New Mexico Senate Votes On Liquor, Redistricting, Tax Breaks - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

In their second-to-last week of the 60-day Legislative session, lawmakers are moving fast. 

Here's a look at the major votes taken on Tuesday. 

— The Senate voted 22-13 to allow for public financing of candidates seeking to serve as judges. New Mexico already allows public financing for campaigns for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. The new law would extend financing to campaigns for lower courts, likely the first in the nation to do so. 

— A plan to determine boundaries for congressional districts passed unanimously 39-0.  Democratic leadership promised  that the process would be non-partisan. Under the plan, redistricting maps will be drawn by an independent board, and the legislature would decide which one to adopt.

— Senators also voted unanimously 39-0 to examine industry tax breaks aimed at creating jobs, to see if they really work. If signed into law, tax break recipients would have additional reporting requirements. Industries receiving $10 million or more would be subject to a review by the Taxation and Revenue Department. 

That would expose the state's top tax-break earners to additional scrutiny including the largest, the film industry. Averaging around $70 million in tax breaks per year, the amount is expected to increase to $145 million by 2023. Other top tax breaks likely to be reviewed if the bill moves forward include those for manufacturing, specialized high-wage jobs, and locomotive engine fuel. 

The bills will all be sent to the House for consideration. 

The Senate also passed a House bill  that would allow for alcohol delivery.

Separately, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill waiving liquor license fees to support the state's struggling restaurants and bars.

Police: 4 Found Dead In Car At Albuquerque Airport Garage - Associated Press

Albuquerque police have identified four people whose bodies were found last week inside a vehicle parked in the garage of the city's airport. 

Police said three of the four people found dead at the Albuquerque International Sunport were reported missing since January from Grants, about 80 miles west of the city.

Authorities said Sunday that the bodies of Matthew Miller, 21, Jennifer Lannon, 39, Jesten Mata, 40, and Randal Apostalon, 60, were found inside a car parked on the top level of the garage Friday at around 1 a.m. The condition of the bodies and cause of death was not immediately clear.

Police originally reported that one body was discovered after airport security personnel contacted police about a foul odor.

Albuquerque police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said the department is investigating the case with police in Grants.

"There's a lot of aspects to this. We're still finding out information as we're going forward with this investigation. There are some things we can not release at this time," Grants police Lt. David Chavez said, who confirmed the fourth person was from Albuquerque.

Chavez said the three people from Grants all disappeared around the same time, and are believed to be friends who hung out together.

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