Looking back: Ten topics that dominated San Juan County's news in the 2010s
FARMINGTON — The 2010s brought unique challenges to San Juan County that had not been seen before — from water to changes in the energy industries.
Energy and the environment dominated news throughout the decade.
Here's a look back at 10 topics that lead local news during the decade.
Hope for a mini boom disappears as the economy takes a downturn
Nothing dominated news coverage in the 2010s quite like the economy. San Juan County had reached an economic high point in 2009 and entered the decade with less revenue coming into government coffers. But there was still hope for a rebound in the future thanks to the Mancos Shale formation.
The Mancos Shale is a tight, nonporous layer of rock. In the early 2010s, oil companies began implementing two new techniques to extract oil from the shale — horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.
The success of the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and Montana created hope that Farmington could once again become a boom town.
But that hope soon vanished. One by one, companies sold their oil and gas assets in the San Juan Basin.
In July 2016, there wasn't a single drilling rig operating.
Related news: San Juan Basin drilling activity hits zero
The decline in the oil and gas industry hurt local governments, especially the City of Bloomfield. Bloomfield laid off staff and cut pay.
The economy improved slightly at the end of the decade, but it is still far from booming.
Concerns surround fracking and horizontal drilling
The two techniques that created the hope for a mini-boom at the beginning of the decade also drew increased concern from the environmental community nationwide.
The main concern environmental advocates have surrounding fracking is the chemicals used and how they might impact drinking water. Some of the chemicals used in fracking have remained undisclosed.
However, industry officials emphasize that there is no evidence of fracking contaminating ground water in the San Juan Basin.
A report issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2017 states fracking can impact drinking water under certain circumstances, including:
- Withdrawing water for fracking in places with limited or declining groundwater reserves
- Spills during the handling of fluids and chemicals used for fracking
- Injecting the fracking fluids into wells using equipment with inadequate mechanical integrity
- Injecting fracking fluids directly into groundwater resources
- Inadequately discharging treated hydraulic fracturing wastewater into surface water
- Disposing of or storing the wastewater in unlined pits.
Concerns about fracking led to an unsuccessful bill being introduced in the state Legislature this year that proposed a temporary ban on fracking. This debate will continue into the upcoming decade.
In 2015, a coalition of environmental groups sued the Bureau of Land Management over fracking and horizontal drilling near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The last update to the Farmington Field Office's resource management plan was issued in 2003 prior to the rise in horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing in the San Juan Basin. The BLM agreed to amend the plan to evaluate the new techniques' potential impacts on archaeological sites, but that amendment has not yet been finalized.
New leases within a 10-mile buffer zone of the park have been deferred as the BLM works on the amendment. Environmental advocates hope this buffer zone becomes permanent in the upcoming decade.
Coal-fired generating units close
In addition to concerns about fracking, environmental groups became increasingly concerned about emissions from coal-fired power plants in the Four Corners region, including the Four Corners Power Plant, the San Juan Generating Station and the Navajo Generating Station.
In an effort to curb emissions, two of the four units were closed at San Juan Generating Station this decade and three of the five units at Four Corners Power Plant also shuttered. The operators also installed emission controls on the remaining units.
Ultimately, the fate of coal became linked to the low price of natural gas and the increase in renewable generation. Toward the end of the decade, utilities like Public Service Company of New Mexico announced plans to end coal-fired generation.
The decade ended with the closure of the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona and with the possibility of the San Juan Generating Station closing in 2022.
Gold King Mine spill creates lingering distrust of the Animas River
One of the most memorable images from the decade is the mustard-colored Animas River.
In early August 2015, San Juan County residents learned that the EPA had triggered a mine spill from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. The water that had built up inside the mine spilled into Cement Creek, carrying with it heavy metals from within the mine including lead, iron, manganese and arsenic. Cement Creek is a tributary of the Animas River and soon the plume of mine waste turned the Animas River a mustard color.
Officials closed head gates to ditches and turned off pumps to water treatment plants, relying on reserves to provide drinking water and leaving crops without irrigation. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released additional water from Navajo Dam to dilute the amount of metals in the water below the confluence with the San Juan River. People stood along the river to watch the mustard-colored plume pass by.
Even after the plume had passed and officials declared the river safe, some people remained cautious about using water from the river. Farmers let their fields go fallow for years. The mine spill also led to multiple lawsuits against the EPA.
More on the spill: Gold King mine spill 'still hurting' New Mexico 4 years later
Ashlynne Mike’s kidnapping, murder shows a weak spot in Amber Alerts
When Ashlynne Mike was abducted while walking home from school in May 2016, an Amber Alert was not issued until early the next morning.
The 11-year-old girl and her brother were reported shortly before 7 p.m. on May 2, 2016. Her brother was later found walking along a road near the Shiprock pinnacle.
An Amber Alert was issued at 2:30 a.m. the next day and her body was later found near the pinnacle.
Police arrested Tom Begaye Jr. in connection to her murder. Begaye pleaded guilty in 2017.
The case showed a weakness in the tribal system for issuing Amber Alerts. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sponsored a bill through Congress to increase funding for Amber Alert systems in Indian Country. President Donald Trump signed the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act into law in 2018. This law provided tribes with funding to develop and operate child abduction notification systems.
President signs the bill: Trump signs bill to expand Amber Alert to tribes
A methane hotspot is discovered over the Four Corners region
NASA scientists announced in 2015 that a satellite had discovered a methane hotspot the size of Delaware over the Four Corners region.
A subsequent NASA-led study released in 2016 found that 10% of emitters were responsible for about a quarter of the methane emissions. The more than 250 sources evaluated included gas wells, storage tanks, pipelines and processing plants. Only a handful of the identified sources were natural seeps and there was one coal mine venting shaft identified.
New Mexico is in the process of developing methane regulations that will impact the oil and gas industry. Industry officials and local leaders are concerned these increased regulations may make it uneconomical to operate some of the low-producing wells in the San Juan Basin and have also urged state officials to consider the impacts of naturally-occurring methane emissions.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe estimates 1.25 million cubic feet of methane was leaking from the Fruitland coal outcropping in Colorado each day in 2010. The tribe's energy manager told people attending the Four Corners Air Quality Task Force meeting this year that the amount of methane leaking from the outcropping has increased since 2013.
Farmington leads push to build an outdoors economy
As government revenues dropped with the economic downturn, Farmington officials as well as Four Corners Economic Development looked for options to diversify the economy. They identified outdoor recreation as a low-hanging fruit.
The Farmington Convention and Visitors Bureau had already started the process with its branding initiative, which led to the brand “Jolt Your Journey.” The CVB had partnered with the city in that effort and launched a Jolt Your Journey advertising campaign in 2015.
The biggest success story for Farmington so far has been Lake Farmington. This decade has seen Lake Farmington transform from a place with some fishing but no swimming or boating to a destination with paddleboard rentals, a campground and a swimming area.
In 2018, Farmington increased gross receipts tax partially to pay for creating outdoor recreation amenities.
Aztec struggles to come to terms with a high school shooting
The Aztec High School shooting on Dec. 7, 2017, ripped open the community and left lasting aftershocks that can still be felt today. The shooting left two students dead as well as the shooter, who took his own life.
Following the shooting, lawmakers searched for ways to prevent future tragedies while parents focused on helping their children process what had happened. The conversations about the shooting will continue into the upcoming years as lawmakers will continue to search for ways to make schools safer.
Meanwhile, the mother of one of the children killed has sued the school district alleging it failed to protect her daughter.
Thousands of residents left without clean water for months
At first, the boil water advisory that first began on May 25, 2016 showed a weakness in the reverse 911 system as many people who were not AV Water customers received text messages telling them to boil their water while some AV Water customers were never notified. But the focus on the notification problems soon dissipated as details emerged about the boil water advisory.
The New Mexico Environment Department’s investigation alleged operators were lying about the results of water quality tests. The failing infrastructure, including the water treatment plants for both AV Water’s systems, created challenges and AV Water soon told state regulators that it did not have the money to fix either system.
The Morningstar system, serving Crouch Mesa and surrounding areas, was the first to have its boil water advisory lifted. During the summer, the City of Farmington completed a connection to the Morningstar system that allowed AV Water to buy Farmington water to sell to its customers. AV Water then abandoned its water treatment plant for the Morningstar system and, on Sept. 1, 2016, NMED lifted the boil water advisory for that system.
But the Harvest Gold system, located east of Bloomfield, remained under a boil water advisory with no easy solution in sight. The boil water advisory lasted more than a year and was only lifted after the community took over the water system, creating Apple Orchard Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association. This allowed the community to partner with San Juan County and the City of Bloomfield to build a connection to the Bloomfield water system. It then abandoned its water treatment plant. The boil water advisory was lifted on Nov. 21, 2017.
Water advisory: Boil-water advisory lifted for Harvest Gold
Extreme weather events threaten communities
San Juan County saw both too much and too little water in the 2010s. Heavy rainfall led to widespread flooding in 2013 and 2015.
The Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village was one of the worst areas hit. It had spent $40,000 recovering from the 2013 flood only to once again be flooded with debris in August 2015. Residents near Aztec High School and in the Kokopelli subdivision saw their homes flooded both in 2013 and in 2015. Flood waters filled about a dozen classrooms at Lydia Rippey Elementary School in 2015.
The 2013 flooding spewed rocks and debris into neighborhoods in east Farmington and even led to a sinkhole.
Then, in August 2016, another storm claimed one life in the Blanco area and destroyed a neighborhood in Shiprock, damaging 13 houses in the area of Mesa Farm and Salt Creek Wash.
Two years later, northwest New Mexico plunged into one of the worst droughts it had ever seen in 2018. The Animas River was reduced to a trickle and local cities issued water restrictions.
A wet winter relieved that drought, but the lack of a monsoon season has led to the drought conditions returning at the turn of the decade.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at email@example.com.
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