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An Independent Monthly Newspaper Serving the Community since 1988

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Ben Luce

All-around solar guy Ben Luce with panels at his home in Santa Fe.

Ben Luce with a toy solar car from his days at the New Mexico Solar Energy Association.

Editorial:

Clean energy insider blows his top in New Mexico

—LAURA PASKUS, HIGH COUNTRY NEWS

Name: Ben Luce

Age: 44

Résumé:

Ten years at Los Alamos National Laboratory working on nonlinear dynamics; co-founder and former director of the New Mexico Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy; founder, Break The Grip.

Minimum number of Task Force seats Governor Richardson appointed him to:

Five (all relating to energy.)

Minimum number of harmonicas carried through airport security in July: Four

In June, after ten years of helping craft laws related to energy efficiency and renewable energy in New Mexico, Ben Luce held a press conference in Santa Fe. The gist of Luce’s message was this: Corporate influence over the legislature and the governor’s office has thwarted true progress on clean energy.

Now, Luce and his group, Break The Grip, are calling for the state to repeal four laws passed in the 2007 legislative session that they say were compromised by influence from PNM, the state’s largest electric utility. A spokesman from the governor’s office dismissed Luce’s assertions as a “rant.” Nevertheless, the state’s attorney general is investigating the governor’s office’s use of a PNM-paid lobbyist as a staffer during the 2007 legislative session.

• HCN: No offense, Ben, but you don’t exactly seem like a wild and crazy guy.

• BL: I wasn’t a radical. I was considered the reasonable guy who could bring about incremental progress, and I took a lot of heat from the far left from being too close, from being willing to compromise too much.

• HCN: What prompted you to finally lose it?

• BL: It was one thing to have the utilities at the table—I could justify that in my mind—as long as there was some true leadership being shown by the governor, and as long as real progress was being made. It was another thing to have only the utilities at the table and to have extremely flawed policies full of loopholes and corporate giveaways being pushed by the administration. They just weren’t ethical, and they just weren’t serious about clean energy.

• HCN: How do you respond to the governor’s office calling your allegations a “rant?”

• BL: There has been silence on my general criticisms. I interpret it as confirmation that I’m on target.

• HCN: You raised concerns about Governor Richardson, who is also a presidential candidate, the state legislature, an electric utility, the nuclear industry, and one of the largest environmental groups (the Natural Resources Defense Council). Do you ever feel nervous about that?

• BL: I am looking over my shoulder. I’ve always followed my heart completely in what I do. I don’t know any other way to live.

• HCN: What do you have to say to the people who point out that you helped pass the legislation you now say should be repealed?

• BL: I was under an obligation at the time—I was still with the coalition—to publicly stick with the agreement that had been made in the heat of the session. Furthermore, we didn’t know that PNM was about to appoint as their new head of generation a major nuclear power player.

And frankly, I have said publicly that I think it was a mistake on my part to play as much of an insider game as I did. It’s not something I intend to do ever again. I believe public policy should be developed in the bright light of day, not behind closed doors because you’re depending on political will, and not grassroots pressure. And it’s also true that a bunch of those bills were really good bills… the solar rights bill, the gross receipts tax exemption for solar this session, and the solar-ready roofs bill.

• HCN: What are some of the things you’ve heard about yourself since you started Break The Grip?

• BL: One of the governor’s advisors characterized me as being a “crazy person.” One woman explained to me that she felt she couldn’t trust me anymore—frankly, I don’t blame her for that—and Jim Baca (former head of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management under President Clinton and former Albuquerque mayor) characterized my actions as a “miscalculation.”

• HCN: Three things you think New Mexicans should know?

• BL: The nuclear and coal industries are intent on turning New Mexico into a vast wasteland for their profit. You are not in control of your own state government. We actually have the technology and the means to completely phase out fossil fuels and nuclear power; we just need to get serious about it.

The author is a freelance writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This article originally appeared in High Country News (www.hcn.org), which covers the West’s communities and natural-resource issues from Paonia, Colorado.

Can East Mountain water still sustain growth?

—KEVIN BEAN, THE INDEPENDENT
Current water data show growth in the East Mountains has not yet overtaxed water supplies, but exactly how much development the area can sustain remains unclear.

In the Estancia Valley, meanwhile, the water table is continuing to decline, but crops, not homes, are responsible. If large-scale irrigation were eliminated, the area could sustainably support sixty thousand residents, nearly three times the current population.

Those were some of the findings of Bernalillo County hydrologist Dan McGregor and Entranosa Water and Wastewater chief operating officer John Jones at the August 22 meeting of the East Mountain Coalition of Neighborhood and Landowner Associations.

McGregor said that unlike the vast freshwater aquifers underlying the Estancia and Rio Grande Valleys, aquifers that are experiencing steady (and in some areas dramatic) declines due to over-pumping and limited recharge, long-term monitoring shows groundwater levels in the East Mountains fluctuate with the weather, with well levels dropping during dry periods but bouncing back in wet years.

“Overall, we’re not seeing a marked decline in wells,” McGregor said, adding, “The issue with a well going dry may not be due to a regional trend, but to what’s going on around you. When you drill a well, you have to take both drawdown and the empty lot next door into account.”

McGregor estimated annual average groundwater recharge in the East Mountains from snowmelt and runoff to be about ten-thousand-acre-feet (one acre foot is roughly 326,000 gallons). Total groundwater demand in the area from both private and public wells is about half that amount.

McGregor acknowledged, however, the need for more research to gain a better understanding of the demands being put on groundwater supplies and of the area’s complex geohydrology.

There are many more private wells than permits, for example, and he said Bernalillo County is trying to figure out how to get a handle on that situation. He also said that the county and the U.S. Geological Survey are jointly spending $100,000 a year in the East Mountains monitoring wells and measuring surface flows.

“We’re trying to narrow down the recharge number a little bit. We’re also trying to quantify recharge from septic systems.”

In response to a question in a follow-up interview, McGregor also acknowledged a potential gap in county regulations designed to ensure adequate water for new subdivisions.

Those regulations provide that “major” subdivisions of twenty or more lots must either be supplied by a community water system or, if using private or shared wells, have a detailed hydrologic report demonstrating at least a seventy-year water supply and no significant impact on neighboring wells. Because individual private wells in “minor” subdivisions of less than twenty lots have a limited impact on area groundwater levels, those requirements do not apply.

Taken one minor subdivision at a time, McGregor said the regulations are adequate. That may not be true when looking at the bigger picture.

“In looking at the subdivision process, there is no provision to look at cumulative impacts of multiple minor subdivisions,” he said. “That’s as far as I want to go with that right now. It’s really a sustainability question—how many wells can be sustained, period. I don’t know that there’s an answer to that question. The land-use planning process doesn’t require us to ask. It’s a very appropriate question, though.”

Jones focused on water in the Estancia Valley and Entranosa’s use and management of it. He said the eight-hundred-fifty-acre-feet of water Entranosa pumped from seven wells to serve 2,847 customers in 2006 represented about two percent of the valley’s total water demand, and he reminded his audience that irrigation wells, not private or public ones, are what’s draining the valley’s aquifers.

“The very thing that makes the Estancia Valley such a nice place to live is what’s killing it,” Jones said.

Jones said monitoring wells show groundwater declining area-wide at a rate of about one foot a year, although much greater declines have been recorded in some places.

“Other wells are dropping five feet,” he added. “Some have dropped fifteen feet.”

Jones also pointed out that agricultural uses of water were declining.

“The profit line for irrigators is going down,” he said. Asked how many people the valley could support if irrigation were curtailed or eliminated, Jones said, “In my estimation, the basin can sustain sixty thousand people.”

In 2006, roughly twenty-one-hundred of Entranosa’s customers were in Bernalillo County, a fact Jones attributed to Bernalillo County’s less restrictive regulations as compared to Santa Fe County.

While Entranosa’s current service area covers one-hundred-fifty square miles, the company can legally provide service to 210 square miles. That’s an area, Jones said, about the same size as Albuquerque’s northeast and southeast heights combined.

To service that large area, Entranosa has 236 miles of pipe and sixteen water storage tanks. The company also uses “a lot of power” to move water from where it’s pumped to where it’s needed, which in some cases entails an elevation change of eleven-hundred feet.

As far as legal water rights, Jones said Entranosa has excess capacity. He said the company owns twenty-eight-hundred-acre-feet of water rights and has commitments for twenty-one-hundred-acre-feet of that total.

Asked his opinion about what the future holds, Jones said one study showed there are eight thousand platted and approved but currently vacant lots in the East Mountain area. Whether water will be available to all those lots is another thing.

“At this point, there is no coordinated effort to guarantee you’re going to get water,” Jones said.

This article was originally printed in The Independent, September 5-11 issue.

Placitas Elementary Recycling Club asks for plastic bags

Once again, the Placitas Elementary School’s Recycling Club will be accepting plastic grocery bags for them to exchange at Wal-Mart stores for cash. Bag donors may drop bags off at Placitas Elementary School or at the Placitas Recycling Center during regular Saturday drop-off hours. Please do not bring black bags.

Vincent Sheehan, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Placitas Elementary School, and the Placitas Elementary Recycling Club would like to thank the community for making Placitas Elementary School one of the top ten collecting schools in the state last year.

Recycling Association needs board members, volunteers

The Placitas community has grown rapidly and significantly in the last few years. This growth is reflected in the number of users of the Placitas Recycling Center every Saturday and the amount of recycled materials the center receives. Three years ago, the center changed from a bimonthly schedule to weekly hours in response to the increased demand. Now, it frequently gets over 200 cars a week, which is more than double the number three years ago. At the same time, the membership of the Placitas Recycling Association’s Board of Directors has dropped in the last year and has reached a critical low. The board recently lost several members because of health issues and other obligations, and the number of new board members has not kept pace with the growth in the community. If new members are not found, the Recycling Center may have to reduce its operating hours or even close.

Board member duties are modest. They attend four board meetings a year and with a full membership each board member works at the recycling center about four times a year. A member of the board must be present on every day that the center is open. More users of the center also means more material is collected. In past years, recyclables collected at the center only needed to be transported to vendors in Albuquerque every couple weeks. Now, the volume of material the center receives every Saturday requires more frequent trips, which fall on board members and volunteers.

Center duty is not the only time volunteers are needed. People who are not available on Saturdays can volunteer during the week to help bale the plastic and take the materials to collection centers in Albuquerque. Carmen Ketchum, the Recycling Association’s Volunteer Coordinator, is also putting together a list of people who cannot commit ahead of time but are willing to be called on at the last minute to help.

“Anyone who might be willing to help with any of these tasks, either as a board member or as a volunteer, PLEASE call me or Carmen,” pleaded Recycling Association President John Richardson. “We would love to hear from you and answer any questions you have about serving with our group.” Richardson can be reached at 771-3383 and Ketchum at 771-1311. Volunteers can also sign up at the recycling center during its operating hours.

The all-volunteer Placitas Recycling Center is located on Highway 165 just east of I-25 and is open every Saturday between 8:00 and 11:00 a.m. More information about the center can be found at www.placitasrecycling.com.

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