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State gives ‘outstanding’ designation to northern N.M. waters, enhancing pollution rules

Any activities that can cause water degradation must go through strict state authorization process
The Rio Grande is one of many rivers and streams to be specially protected by the state. (Shaun Griswold/Source NM)

The state will soon enact heightened protection against any unauthorized water pollution or other damages across hundreds of miles of rivers and streams in northern New Mexico.

On Tuesday morning, the Water Quality Control Commission, a state water pollution control agency, unanimously passed the designation of Outstanding National Resource Waters for the Upper Pecos watershed as well as segments of Rio Grande, Rio Hondo, Lake Fork, East Fork Jemez River, San Antonio Creek and Redondo Creek.

This is the highest level of protection against water degradation the state can give.

These bodies of water will have unique protection against degradation – anything that harms water quality, pollutes, drops heavy metals, increases temperature or clouds water.

Pollution levels that were allowed per state health standards before this passage are no longer allowed. And anyone found violating these standards can be fined or taken to court by the state.

These efforts have been years in the making. A petition must be filed with the Water Quality Control Commission for any consideration for waters to be classified and protected as Outstanding National Resource Waters, and petitions for these waters stem back to 2020 and 2021.

Tannis Fox, senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, was counsel to the authors for the separate but similar petitions. She said about 180 miles of the Upper Pecos watershed and around 125 miles of other streams and rivers in northern New Mexico will be protected.

One of the petitioners, director of N.M. Outdoor Recreation Division Axie Navas, said this change could be used to help get more funding to protect watersheds or even as a marketing tool so people know New Mexicans are proud of their waters.

Any time there could be impacts to water quality, such as through restoration, road construction or discharges, organizations must go through the Environment Department or Water Quality Control Commission to get permission, Fox said.

Other human activities that could hurt water quality outlined in the petitions include mining, waste disposal, development and transportation. One of the petitioners, Ralph Vigil, owner of the organic farm Molino de la Isla Organics, said the Upper Pecos watershed has been threatened by mining in the past.

Mining operations in the late 1920s and early ’30s severely damaged the Upper Pecos watershed, he said, killing fish and contaminating the water.

Now, there’s another proposed exploratory mine near Thompson Peak that wants to extract minerals out of the watershed. This designation will protect against that.

“We had to put some protections so that this doesn’t happen to us again, especially from the mining community,” Vigil said.

Pre-existing uses are allowed to continue, Fox said. Some examples Vigil gave include irrigation and grazing. In addition, the Village of Taos Ski Valley has a wastewater discharge permit in the Rio Hondo but will be allowed to continue that discharge, Fox said.

Significance of the waters

A body of water can receive the designation if it provides one of any number of benefits, such as being a cultural resource, existing within a national or state park or not being significantly altered by human activity.

“These streams represent some of the most ecologically diverse waters in our state, as well as some of the most aesthetically beautiful and recreated on streams in the state,” Fox said. “All of these waters are just majestic.”

The Upper Pecos watershed area is sacred to Pueblos nearby as well as other inhabitants of the area, Vigil said. His family has been in New Mexico for eight generations.

“It’s a special and sacred place to us with our acequia systems and our agricultural practices and our cultural practices,” he said. “So I know there’s a lot of people that this river means a lot to as far as recreation is concerned as well.”

Navas said she was honored to work with all the counties that take pride and ownership in their bodies of water.

“We’re really excited about it because so much of these waters, the portions of these rivers are just enormously significant to individuals who live in these communities, traditional practices, cultural practices and then of course the outdoor recreation companies that make their livelihood from taking people out on adventures on these pristine waters,” Navas said.

There was a significant amount of public support. For the northern New Mexico rivers and streams, Navas said the petition received more than 50 resolutions of formal support and more than 2,200 public supportive comments. The Upper Pecos watershed petition also had many voices supporting it, including Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján as well as Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez.

N.M. Environment Department spokesperson Matthew Maez wrote via email that “today’s decision brings much needed protections to New Mexico’s most precious resource – our water.”

In the final deliberation stage, Commissioners Larry Dominguez and Bill Brancard brought up concerns about the designation taking effect on private land, and action Colorado could take to protect its side of the Rio Grande and the Village of Taos Ski Valley’s wastewater discharge permit.

Fox said all of these concerns were addressed in the evidence presented to the commission previously and are not issues. Both commissioners voted to pass the petitions.

Navas said now is the time to get the word out about the passage to all of the supporters.

“The quality of water and doing this now is not basically for us. This is for our grandchildren and for our future generations to be able to enjoy in such the same way that we did,” Vigil said. “So it was a very huge victory.”

The state must go through a formal publication process now before the classification becomes official. Maez said this will likely go into effect in September.

To read more from Source NM, visit sourcenm.com.