IMG_2004Drilling Deep – KUNM

Over the next few months, I’m going to be exploring natural gas drilling and the burgeoning oil industry in northwestern New Mexico for KUNM. It’s an ambitious series, but I’m looking forward to learning how drilling affects the local economy, as well as the state of New Mexico’s coffers.

What’s happening in the region right now is new and different from the natural gas drilling that’s occurred in the San Juan Basin for more than half a century. (And even though “fracking” has become a national phenomenon, it’s been happening here in the Land of Enchantment for decades.) The industry brings hundreds of millions of dollars into the state, but it also comes with impacts to public health, the environment, communities, and water resources. Throughout the course of this series, I’ll also be exploring how decisions are made, what the planning process is like, and how things like spills, blowouts, or accidents are handled.

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Gila Hiccup: Former Interstate Stream Commission director says group violated the state Open Meetings Act
Santa Fe Reporter, Sept. 22, 2014

IMG_1800A former director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, Norman Gaume, announced Monday that he’s planning to sue that agency for alleged violations of the state’s Open Meetings Act, and the action might be enough to create a hiccup for a proposal to divert water from the Gila River.

In his letter to the commission that gives notice of the pending court action, Gaume says its Subcommittee on the Gila River Diversion Project has been meeting without giving public notice, without publishing its agendas, and without publishing its minutes.The Interstate Stream Commission has had nearly ten years to decide whether or not to build a diversion on the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico.

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Cover-MAIN-2.wideaDivert & Conquer: NM’s plans to dam the Gila River are dubious and damn expensive
Santa Fe Reporter, August 14, 2014

With a lagging economy and a warming climate, New Mexico might be getting ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on dim plans to draw water from the Gila River. The state has had a decade to decide: Build diversions, canals and reservoirs to take 14,000 acre feet each year of the river’s waters; or, secure water for farmers, businesses and homes in the sparsely populated southwestern corner of New Mexico through efficiency and conservation.

Now, with a rush of last-minute studies and contradictory results, 10 men are heading toward a vote that could change one of the West’s last wild stretches of river.

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Endangered Mexican gray wolf at heart of political battle in Southwest
Al Jazeera America, March 13, 2014

Last year, government agents removed a pair of Mexican gray wolves from the Southwestern United States. They were accused of preying on livestock, and their time in the wild was over. Today the female lives in captivity. The male was killed, but his genetic legacy may live into the future.

“Unfortunately, when he was examined by a veterinarian at a facility in New York, it was determined he had a large mass in his abdomen and had to be euthanized,” said Sherry Barrett, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican wolf recovery coordinator. Working with state and tribal partners, the agency has been trying to recover the species that had been hunted to near extinction in the mid-20th century.

As state and federal political administrations have changed over time, support for the program to recover the Mexican gray wolf population has waxed and waned. Southwestern ranchers remain virulently opposed to the predator. And, like the two captured last year, wolves suspected of feeding on livestock — or that roam outside the official recovery area — are removed from the wild and sometimes killed. But the challenges the program faces run even deeper — and may have more to do with how humans see one another than with how wolves themselves move across the landscape.

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Refuge Hosts More Than Sandhill Cranes
KUNM, Nov. 21, 2013

In Socorro County this week, the Festival of the Cranes draws thousands of tourists. Sandhill cranes and snow geese draw the big crowds, but the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge hosts more than just migrating birds.

Six sandhill cranes swirl above us, deciding whether or not they’re going to land. We’re standing at a pullout along Highway 1, south of San Antonio, New Mexico.

“This is great. These are the first ones I’ve seen this year. It’s always so exciting. The first time you hear them, you’re like, ‘They’re back!’” says Leigh Ann Vradenburg, director of the nonprofit Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. “For this area, you know, to hear the cranes, to see the cottonwoods, to smell the green chile roasting: that’s when fall hits in Socorro County.”

It’s not just their prehistoric-sounding call that makes the cranes unique. They’re giant and gray, with a red mask. When they come in for a landing, they have this way of hanging their legs out behind them. These birds come down from the northern Rockies, migrating through Colorado’s San Luis Valley, arriving in New Mexico in October. This year, they started arriving during the federal government shutdown.

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canary_in_the_copper_mine.wideaThe Canary in the Copper Mine (is dead): How New Mexico’s copper industry wrote its own rules
Santa Fe Reporter, May 15, 2013

Close your eyes, and picture a radical.

Bill Olson is not that guy. With a neat brown beard and a fondness for western shirts and jackets, even the occasional bolo tie, he’s the quintessential water nerd. When asked, over coffee and a blueberry scone, to talk about groundwater, he actually grins. Delightedly.

In short, he’s not exactly the person you’d expect to find at the center of a controversy over New Mexico’s environmental rules.

And yet, here he is.

Olson is a former bureau chief at the New Mexico Environment Department, which regulates how industry impacts the state’s natural resources. Specifically, he has worked to keep groundwater—the underground aquifers that provide most of New Mexico’s drinking water—from becoming contaminated.

“I’m passionate about groundwater and protection issues,” he says. “It’s something that’s important to me.”

It’s early May, and the state has just wrapped up a few grueling weeks’ worth of hearings about a new water pollution rule for copper mines.

To industry, the new rule represents the chance to profit and create jobs in New Mexico. Others see it as an abdication of the state’s responsibility to protect groundwater—and a move to hand over the public’s water to private companies.

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july 161

Saving fish from a drying river
KUNM, July 18, 2012

The monsoon rains arrived this month, but it’s still hot and dry in New Mexico.

The ongoing drought is placing stress on the state’s rivers and streams, including the Rio Grande. And while cities and farmers still receive their shares of water, each summer, one user gets left out—the Rio Grande itself. Like it has every summer for the past decade, the Rio Grande downstream of Albuquerque is drying.

Early each morning Jason Remshardt, supervisory fish biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) New Mexico Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, receives a call letting him know how many miles of the river dried overnight. “They give me a call,” he says, “and say, ‘‘Hey this is where you have to go today,’ and we load up and come to the river.”

Before the monsoons arrived, some 30 miles of riverbed had dried. On Tuesday, only about a mile of river had dried.

The biologists head out to the river, looking for pools of water—some the size of a computer keyboard, others the size of a couch—then check for fish trapped within them.

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