MON: New Mexico’s Largest Utilities To Resume Normal Billing, + More

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New Mexico’s Largest Utilities To Resume Normal Billing – Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Tens of thousands of people in New Mexico who are behind on their gas and electric bills could lose power as soon as mid-August after a pandemic moratorium on utility shutoffs ended.

More than 47,000 residential customers of Public Service Co. of New Mexico have outstanding balances of about $448 on average for electricity, the company said. About 34,000 residential customers of New Mexico Gas Co. owe an average of $230, spokesman Tim Korte told the Albuquerque Journal.

The utilities are the largest providers of electric and gas services in New Mexico with more than 500,000 customers each.

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission prevented utilities from disconnecting service over unpaid bills during much of the pandemic. The moratorium ended in May but had a 90-day transition period.

The soonest investor-owned and large gas companies could shut off service and resume normal billing practices is Aug. 12. Utilities say disconnecting people’s power and gas is a last resort that wouldn’t be taken until customers receive multiple past-due notices.

The utilities and the state have financial assistance for people who need help paying their bills.

“We can help the customers, we just need to have the conversation,” Korte said.

Maria Griego, the economic equity director for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said families should take advantage of the programs.

“Kids are just going to be starting back in school in the next couple of weeks, and so it can be pretty disruptive to families when they deal with an electricity outage,” she said.

Other protections designed to help vulnerable New Mexicans weather the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been expiring as business restrictions eased. 

A nationwide ban on evictions put in place last September by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ended Saturday. New Mexico renters are still protected from eviction under an order issued by the New Mexico Supreme Court. 

Agency Officials OK Restoration Plan For Forest, Grasslands – Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

U.S. Forest Service officials in New Mexico have approved a plan for restoration of wetlands and areas along waterways in the Carson, Cibola and Santa Fe national forests and the Kiowa National Grasslands.

The plan is intended to enhance wildlife habitat, watershed health and water quality while countering impacts of climate change, wildfires, grazing, urbanization, recreation and invasive species, the Santa Fe new Mexican reported.

Riparian zones support biodiversity by providing nesting habitat, migration corridors and shelter from life-imperiling threats, officials said.

The approval enables Forest Service officials to implement various projects, include ones to plant riparian vegetation, relocate or close certain roads and trails and restore channels, springs and seeps.

“Riparian restoration will provide quality wildlife habitat and help secure sustainable sources of clean water for New Mexico,” said Cibola National Forest Supervisor Steve Hattenbach.

Two conservation groups had opposing views of the plan’s approval.

A Defenders of Wildlife official said approval of the plan provides a path to address “depleted conditions” of streams and rivers on federal lands while a Center for Biological Diversity official said the plan failed to address extensive damage from agriculture.

New Mexico House Leader Resigns In Face Of Corruption Probe – Associated Press 

The second-ranking legislator in the New Mexico House of Representatives resigned Friday amid criminal investigations into her ties to a private contractor for the Albuquerque school district where she also works.

Democratic House leaders announced the resignation of Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton while the investigation continues into possible racketeering, money laundering, kickbacks and violations of a law governing the conduct of state lawmakers.

Rep. Stapleton of Albuquerque said in her resignation letter that she “unequivocally” denies the allegations against her but decided she must devote her time and energy to fully defending herself.

“I have made the difficult decision that it is in the best interest of the state,” she wrote in the letter to Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver.

Stapleton, who began serving in the Legislature in 1995, couldn’t be reached directly for comment on Friday. Stapleton oversees career technical education for Albuquerque Public Schools, the largest school district in the state and the top employer in the city. 

She has been placed on paid administrative leave by the school district.

No charges have been filed against her.

Authorities are investigating Stapleton’s possibly illegal connections to a company that received more than $5 million in contracts to do business with the school district and whether she got financial kickbacks.

They executed search warrants at school offices and Stapleton’s home this week.

The Albuquerque Public School District declined to comment Friday on news reports that it had been served with a federal grand jury subpoena.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday that she was “horrified” by details of the investigation and that Stapleton should resign if she is indicted. 

House Speaker Brian Egolf released her resignation letter Friday along with a joint statement by Egolf, House Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos and House Majority Caucus Chair D. Wonda Johnson.

“Given the weight of the allegations against Rep. Stapleton and the ongoing investigation, her resignation from the House is appropriate and in the best interest of the Legislature and the state,” they said.

New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said “it is a sad day in New Mexico politics.”

“I know Rep. Stapleton personally, and we have worked together, but there’s no excuse for what she’s apparently done,” he said in a statement Friday. “Rep. Stapleton must be held accountable, and we hope the investigation and judicial process will take the proper course in this matter.”

Eleven additional district staff who are subjects of the investigation were also placed on administrative leave, officials said. They were not named.

The probe examines activities dating back to 2006, meaning other staff who had already left the district might be investigated as well.

The investigation came at the request of Schools Superintendent Scott Elder, who wrote to the state attorney general’s office in April, saying he suspected Stapleton was violating state law because of her dealings with a company that provides computer software to the district.

Carson National Forest Cleans Up After Rainbow Family Event – Associated 

The U.S. Forest Service has conducted extensive cleanup activities following a large, informal gathering attended by thousands of people in a remote area of the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico, officials said.

Officials estimate that 5,000 people attended the dispersed camping and recreational event staged in late June and early July by a group known as the Rainbow Family of Living Light.

The group didn’t apply for a use permit for the gathering but worked with the Forest Service afterward to clean up and rehabilitate the site, agency officials said.

Work required because of the high concentration of visitors in one area include rehabilitating user-created trails, covering bare spots with mulch and removing trash, abandoned camping supplies and man-made structures such as fire rings, officials said in a statement.

Other work included covering latrines, raking and loosening compacted soils and then reseeding those areas with a native seed mix. The annual gathering was first held in 1972 in Colorado and typically draws around 10,000 people to a single forest. Regional meet-ups were held this year because of COVID-19 concerns. 

Navajo Nation President: Some Relaxing Guard Against COVID – Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Saturday reported 25 additional COVID-19 cases as officials said some tribal members are foregoing needed precautions to ward off spread of the coronavirus.

“A lot of the new cases we are seeing on the Navajo Nation are due to family and social gatherings where people let their guard down and don’t wear masks,” tribal President Jonathan Nez said in a statement.

Nez noted that the virus’ highly contagious delta variant is spreading quickly in many states and said people visiting other households should wear masks and encourage others to do so.

The three additional deaths reported Saturday increased the pandemic’s toll to 1,377.

The Navajo Nation’s sprawling reservation includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Indigenous Leaders Urge Top New Mexico Official To Resign – Associated Press

A broad coalition of Indigenous leaders in New Mexico called for the resignation Friday of the director of a legislative agency on public education, arguing undisclosed comments made by the top official were disparaging toward Native Americans.

At a rally and news conference convened by the All Pueblo Council of Governors, Native American leaders and advocates condemned comments made at least two years ago by Rachel Gudgel. Gudgel is the director of the Legislative Education Study Committee, which provides education research and guidance to legislators.

Gudgel apologized this week to members of more than 20 Native American tribes and nations across New Mexico, acknowledging that her past comments were insensitive, insulting and harmful. She declined to comment further when contacted by phone Friday.

The All Pueblo Council of Governors unites leaders of roughly 20 Indian pueblo communities. A youth committee has launched a petition calling for Gudgel to resign.

The gathering on Friday was also a forum for concerns about shortcomings in state funding and consultation with tribes on public education spending and proposed reforms.

Legislators and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham have grappled for years with a landmark 2018 state court ruling that found New Mexico is failing to provide basic educational opportunities to students from minority and low-income households.

Abundant Rain Brings Mixed Blessings To New MexicoBy Scott Wyland The New Mexican

Four months ago, Paul Skrak was among the New Mexico farmers who braced themselves for a bleak summer when acute drought conditions delayed the growing season by 30 days.

But the past few weeks have brought rainfall that’s defying earlier doubts of a strong monsoon, which has eluded the region for several years.

Water managers welcome the downpours, saying they are boosting river flows and offering a much-needed break, however brief, in the state’s stubborn drought.

For farmers, this abrupt reversal of meteorological fortune has generated too much rain, too fast, creating a different set of problems.

“It has damaged the chile, and damages the grass hay, and just plain kills the alfalfa,” said Skrak, owner of the 55-acre Hidalgo Farms near Santa Fe. 

Skrak said the rains have made the fields so muddy that he can’t drive a tractor on them to harvest the grass hay and alfalfa.

Weeds also proliferate in wet weather, demanding more removal. They block the sunlight, stifling the peppers, especially the habañeros, Skrak said.

“That’s the problem we’re having right now: The habañeros are not growing very well,” he said.

Skrak expects he will have only two cuts — or batches — of hay and alfalfa this season, less than the three he cultivates in a normal season.

While the spate of rainstorms is resulting in less profitable yields for growers, they are making somewhat of a dent in the water shortage — or at least preventing it from getting worse, officials say.

“The rain that we did get in the river from all the various storms has helped tremendously,” said Mike Hamman, chief executive and chief engineer for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

The district has not had to tap the 12,000 acre-feet of irrigation water it recently received from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Hamman said. The water is stored in the Abiquiú Reservoir and will be released when needed.

An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to supply an average U.S. household for a year.

Farmers are getting by with less surface water for irrigation, partly because of the rain and also because they are growing less, Hamman said.

Three months ago, it was questionable whether there would be any water for growers beyond early July, and now supply could be stretched to mid-August, depending on whether the rains continue, he said.

The storms also have filled the Rio Grande’s dry stretches with water needed to sustain endangered species, such as the silvery minnow, Hamman said.

And they have enabled the state to funnel more Rio Grande water to Elephant Butte to supply Texas and meet the requirements of a multistate water-sharing agreement, Hamman said.

New Mexico came into this year owing Texas 96,000 acre-feet, he said. He wants the district to do its part to keep the debt from worsening.

The debt prevents New Mexico from drawing and storing Rio Grande water, leading to reservoirs being at their lowest levels in at least 20 years.

Three weeks or even a full season of rain won’t replenish the severely depleted reservoirs, Hamman said, noting it could take years.

One downside to the storms is they caused flooding in Valencia and Eddy counties, breaching 20 ditches and clogging canals with silt.

“We’re just now recovering from that,” Hamman said.

Northern New Mexico is about to enter the wettest period it has had yet this year, said Jennifer Shoemake, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Albuquerque. The trajectory means farmers in the Middle Rio Grande Valley could receive some unwanted torrential rain.

“I know a lot of people want rain, but too much of a good thing is a bad thing,” Shoemake said.

Historically, storms during the monsoon season that runs from mid-June through September drop an average of about 5.5 inches in the Santa Fe area and 4.5 inches in Albuquerque, she said.

The forecast for Sunday and Monday calls for a 50% chance of thunderstorm activity that could bring about an inch of rain per day, said meterologist Dwight Koehn. 

So far, the rains have amplified river flows that the Buckman Direct Diversion relies on to supply water to the Santa Fe area, said Jesse Roach, the city’s Water Division director.

Water officials recently contemplated shutting down the treatment plant temporarily if the flows in the Rio Grande dropped too much. 

But the rainfall has boosted the river, and if it continues at a similar rate into September, it should eliminate any threat of a shutdown, Roach said.

About 80 percent of the water needed to meet the city’s demand has come from the river, and the rest comes from groundwater wells, Roach said. The more rainfall, the less the city has to rely on groundwater. 

“It’s really helping a lot,” Roach said.

Albuquerque Police Respond To 3rd Homicide Case Of Weekend – Associated Press

Police in Albuquerque were investigating their third homicide case of the weekend on Sunday.

They said officers were called out around 2 a.m. Sunday after a man was found unresponsive and with trauma to his body.

Police said the man was taken to a hospital, where he later died from his injuries. 

His name and age haven’t been released yet.

On Saturday morning, police were called to a southeast Albuquerque neighborhood about a man found dead outside a residence. 

Officers also were called to a southeast Albuquerque apartment complex where a person was found dead Saturday evening. 


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