Recent Outstanding National Resource Waters Designations a Huge Win For Watershed & Water Quality Protection in Northern NM!

Photo © Zach Bumgarner

By NM Wild Staff

After years of intensive stakeholder collaboration and exhaustive community outreach, the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission unanimously voted on July 12 to designate approximately 306 miles of river and 43 acres of wetlands in Northern New Mexico as Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRW). The designations result from two petitions covering the Upper Pecos River watershed and the Rio Grande and other rivers and creeks.

The first petition includes nearly 180 miles of rivers and streams and 43 acres of wetlands in the Upper Pecos River watershed. American Rivers recently named the Upper Pecos one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers due to the imminent threat of pollution from proposed gold, copper and zinc mining. An ONRW designation would present a roadblock to mining development by prohibiting any degradation to the water quality in these streams. Outstanding Waters designation in the second petition area of the Upper Rio Grande basin would protect cultural and recreational values as well as ecological resources.

NM Wild partnered with Amigos Bravos, the Western Environmental Law Center, Trout Unlimited, Climate Advocates Voces Unidas (CAVU), Flower Hill Institute, the Upper Pecos Watershed Association and many other organizations to form a dynamic coalition of stakeholders to advocate for ONWR designations.

In the Pecos watershed, Australian mining corporation Comexico LLC, is pushing to explore and develop hardrock mining claims along nearly six miles of the ridgeline that separates the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed and the Upper Pecos River Watershed, running from the Jones Hill area all the way to Thompson Peak. Comexico’s claims straddle several Pecos River tributaries that have been designated as ONRW, including Dalton Canyon, Macho Canyon and Indian Creek.

The ONRW designation requires any mining development to be conducted in a manner that prevents increased turbidity caused by erosion or pollution, such as heavy metals or chemicals, from entering the streams. New Mexico Wild team member Ralph Vigil played a crucial role in this designation, acting as an expert witness and petitioner representing himself as an acequia parciante and multi-generational organic farmer in the town of Pecos.

“The ONRW designation of the Upper Pecos River is a huge win and one giant step forward in permanently protecting our sacred waters for all life and generations to come,” said Vigil.

The second petition includes the Upper Rio Grande from its confluence with the Rio Pueblo de Taos to the Colorado Border, the Rio Hondo and Lake Fork in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness, and the headwaters of the Jemez River in Valles Caldera National Preserve, including the East Fork, San Antonio Creek, and Redondo Creek. ONRW designation would ensure that these waters remain viable and healthy to protect cultural and recreational values in and around Taos, including farming, fishing, hunting, rafting, skiing, hiking, wildlife viewing and other types of outdoor recreation that sustain the economy of the Taos area. Similarly, the designation of the headwaters of the Jemez River will protect ecological, recreational, and cultural values in and around the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

We are thankful for the work of our coalition, which includes stakeholders ranging from Jemez and Tesuque Pueblos to acequia parciantes, outdoor recreation business owners, sportsmen and women, and myriad community members and outdoor recreationalists. The law center and Amigos Bravos get special note for their exhaustive work on writing and submitting extremely detailed petitions to the WQCC.

We sincerely appreciate the state of New Mexico for supporting this critical effort, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, the Department of Game and Fish and the Outdoor Recreation Division, which played a critical role as a petitioner for designation of the upper Rio Grande system waterways.

We also deeply appreciate our other public partners, including the San Miguel and Taos County commissions, the Taos and Jemez Springs city councils, and the mayors of Taos and Jemez Springs. Thank you to all who contributed to protecting water quality in New Mexico’s precious rivers, streams, and wetlands!

These wins show the power of broad-based community-led protection efforts and serve as a great foundation for future Outstanding Waters designations. Thanks to all of you who wrote a letter or e-mail, signed a petition or attended a community meeting in support!

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