New Mexico's waterways are at risk.
New Mexico Wild’s water work is centered on three guiding principles: equitable and collaborative water management, river and habitat protection, and water availability for all uses, including native and imperiled species and recreation. Through these lenses, we work to protect the waterways of the Land of Enchantment and work to ensure equitable access for the plants, wildlife, and human communities that depend on them.
In May of 2023, the Supreme Court sided with big polluters in its decision in Sackett v. EPA, rolling back decades of protections for our waterways under the Clean Water Act.
At issue in the Sackett case is the definition of waters of the United States (WOTUS), or those protected under the Clean Water Act. The decision removed protections for wetlands across the country, except in limited circumstances. The decision also removes protections for most ephemeral streams and many intermittent streams, which make up the vast majority of streams in New Mexico. Together with the lack of protections for closed basins, the Sackett decision means that nearly all of New Mexico's surface waters are no longer protected by the Clean Water Act.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time in recent years that the status of these waters has been left undefined due to federal changes in the definition of WOTUS. The 2020 Dirty Water Rule radically re-interpreted the Clean Water Act, excluding from protection streams that flow only during wet times of the year. Because so many of New Mexico’s waterways are ephemeral, this ruling disproportionately affected New Mexico and over 90% of our state’s waterways lost Clean Water Act protections. Although the Dirty Water Rule was replaced in late 2022 with a rule from the Biden administration that largely restored previous clean water protections, the decision in Sackett goes a step further than the Dirty Water Rule by stating that wetlands must have a continuous surface connection to water bodies already included under WOTUS definitions. This means that wetlands that are separated from other water bodies by roads, berms, etc. are no longer protected under the Clean Water Act. Americans have time and time again recognized the need to protect our precious water resources, with a poll from 2022 showing that 75% of Americans support protecting more waters and wetlands and have a strong preference for the federal government, through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to maintain water standards across the country.
New Mexico Wild is working with our partners and communities across the state to ensure our most precious resource, water, is afforded the protection it deserves. In the 2023 legislative session, we supported the New Mexico Environment Department’s (NMED) plans to begin setting up a surface water quality permitting program by successfully advocating for an initial appropriation. New Mexico is currently one of only three states in the nation that leaves this critical permitting in the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.) With the decision in Sackett and back and forth at the federal level of the definition of WOTUS, it has never been clearer these decisions need to be made at the state level with the input of the communities who depend on these life-giving waterways.
We are currently also working with NMED and our partners to identify potential protection measures to ensure that New Mexico’s wetlands are protected. Wetlands serve critical roles in ecosystems by helping to filter pollutants, controlling flooding and improving communities’ climate resiliency, and providing important habitat.
In the 2023 legislative session, New Mexico Wild successfully advocated for Senate Bill 337, the Water Security Planning Act. This important piece of legislation, sponsored by Senator Liz Stefanics and Representative Susan Herrera, reworks the way that regional water planning takes place across the state. Regional water planning is a critical piece of preparing for a secure water future. A 2019 report from the World Resources Institute identified New Mexico as the most water-stressed state in the U.S. It is now well-understood that New Mexico’s future is hotter and drier. A 2022 study identified the previous two decades in the Southwest as the driest in at least 1,200 years and increasingly we are seeing aridification, or a more permanent drying, throughout the American West. All of this points to what most New Mexicans already know: climate change is here, it is impacting our lives already, and the challenges ahead are likely only to get worse.
Through a deep understanding of what resources we have and how our hydrologic realities are likely to change in the future, we can better prepare for the challenges ahead. Regional water planning provides the state with a tool to ensure community values are incorporated into any and all solutions and an equitable balance can be struck to meet as many needs as possible.
We’re working with partners across the state and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, the state agency charged with completing regional water planning, to ensure a large table where everyone can be represented in this important effort and a fair and transparent process that shares decision-making power between perspectives. By engaging in this process, we can build a future that protects and supports waterways, as well as the quality of life and other benefits they bring to communities across New Mexico.
One of the fundamental water challenges we face, given the realities of climate change, is how to provide for water needs across a variety of uses. New Mexico Wild is working on a variety of levels to ensure that rivers and riparian areas, the habitats they provide, and the species that depend on them are part of that water budget accounting.
As partners in the Bureau of Reclamation’s Middle Rio Grande Basin Study, we’re working collaboratively across a wide array of expertise and perspectives to identify values, quantify environmental flow needs, and identifying workable solutions to some of our greatest water management challenges.
One tool that we believe can help us in this effort is the Strategic Water Reserve, which provides a mechanism for the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) to purchase or lease water from willing water rights owners. The Strategic Water Reserve is authorized for two purposes, to meet obligations to downstream communities through interstate compacts and for the benefit of endangered species, including the listing of new species. This tool has never reached its full potential, in part because of limited funding that has historically been clawed back during tough budget crunches.
Now we’re working with the ISC and other partners to help fill agency capacity gaps and get this money on the ground as quickly as possible, where it’s needed most. Longer term, we're thinking more broadly about how to meet the needs of species and the environment, as well as the human communities who depend on our precious water resources.
After years of collaborative work and community engagement, the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission designated 306 miles of rivers and 43 acres of wetlands as Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRW) on July 12th, 2022. This designation, resulting from petitions focused on the Upper Pecos River watershed and the Upper Rio Grande basin, provides crucial protection against pollution and degradation, especially from potential mining activities. The achievement highlights the power of community-led conservation efforts, emphasizing the importance of public support, collaboration among various stakeholders, and the dedication of organizations and individuals. This victory not only preserves water quality but also safeguards cultural, recreational, and ecological resources for future generations, laying the foundation for continued conservation efforts in the region.
The Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRW) designation is a special classification in the United States given to bodies of water that are exceptionally high in quality and possess unique ecological, cultural, or recreational significance. This designation provides the highest level of protection for water bodies, ensuring their preservation for future generations.
New Mexico Wild has voiced strong support for the New Mexico Environment Department’s (NMED) endeavor to establish a state-led water quality permit program for surfaceRead More
In an article published by the Public News Service on March 2, 2023, New Mexico Wild’s Senior Water Policy Analyst, Tricia Snyder, discussed the importanceRead More
By NM Wild Staff After years of intensive stakeholder collaboration and exhaustive community outreach, the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission unanimously voted on JulyRead More
Sackett v. EPA catapulted clean water protections back fifty years.
New Mexico Wild is dedicated to safeguarding the invaluable water resources of the Land of Enchantment, a mission that encompasses not only the well-being of our diverse plant and wildlife but also the livelihoods of the communities dependent on these crucial waterways. Through our commitment, collaborative initiatives, and strategic advocacy, we are actively shaping a future where water resources remain sustainable and accessible for all in our state. Our efforts aim to confront pressing environmental challenges while effectively addressing the ever-increasing impacts of climate change.