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New Mexico Makes Conservation History With Sweeping Water Protections

More than 700 miles of the states cleanest waters are named Outstanding.

Santa Fe, NM –With the support of thousands of New Mexicans, six cities on the Rio Grande, a handful of dedicated conservation organizations and Governor Richardson the New Mexico water regulators gave sweeping protection today to over 700 miles of 199 perennial rivers and streams, 29 lakes, and approximately 6,000 acres of wetlands affecting close to 1.4 million acres of land. The action of the Water Quality Control Commission concludes a three-year public process, extraordinary in its scope of citizen outreach by state government, since Mr. Richardson announced the water protection initiative on Earth Day 2008.

“New Mexico has taken a bold step in securing our water future.” Said Bryan Bird, Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “There is a great deal of uncertainty with climate change and protecting clean water is a first line of defense.”

The permanent safeguarding of the state's most pristine waters and forests is a historic conservation action, being celebrated by conservationists and hunting and fishing groups statewide. The designation – asserting state’s rights - offers significant protection of clean waters and wild forests, prohibiting any long-term degradation from activities such as livestock grazing, logging, off-highway vehicles, mining, and energy development. Importantly, the Commission decided to retain the existing "no degradation" standard, which will place a premium on water quality protection rather than on permitting activities to occur. National Forest Wilderness areas currently not grazed by domestic livestock – almost 800,000 acres in all – can be expected to remain that way with Outstanding Waters.

Opposition to the designation came from the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association at every turn which even tried to stop the public hearings with a court order, later overturned by the state supreme court. Despite an explicit exemption for existing operations, the members of the Cattlegrowers continue to be against the clean water protections and will likely mount another court challenge.

“We hope the Cattlegrowers don’t deny thousands of citizens the clean water they’ve loudly called for.” Said Bird. “This is a move that clearly benefits everyone in our state.”

On Earth Day 2008 Governor Bill Richardson announced he would protect New Mexico's headwaters as "Outstanding Waters." In May 2010, the New Mexico Environment Department, Game and Fish Department and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department nominated over 700 miles of 199 perennial rivers and streams, 29 lakes, and approximately 6,000 acres of wetlands for protection as Outstanding.

Numerous cities on the Rio Grande, conservation and hunting and fishing organizations, as well as thousands of citizens supported the state's nomination of Outstanding Waters. WildEarth Guardians made a compelling closing argument for expanding the designation to all surface waters of the state in U.S. Forest Service Wilderness and contiguous roadless areas, but it was not accepted by the Commission.

“The state has indicated that it is willing to take bold conservation actions to protect its water source.” Said Bird. “We’ll be back to ask for the Outstanding Waters protection to be expanded to the state’s roadless forests.”

In New Mexico, there are close to 1.6 million acres of undeveloped, roadless forestlands and nearly 1.4 million acres of U.S. Forest Service Wilderness. These forests are often found in watersheds of major municipalities like Santa Fe and Las Vegas and provide uncontaminated water to New Mexicans including small farmers, acequias, wildlife, recreationists and others.

With half - more than 3,000 miles - of New Mexico’s perennial rivers and streams currently polluted or not meeting surface water quality standards—mostly downstream of headwaters—It is critical to protect headwater streams and guarantee a clean water future for New Mexico. The uncertainty of climate change for New Mexico’s future water supply makes this protection of the state’s water the more opportune.

Though New Mexico lagged behind other western states such as Colorado, Utah and Montana in using the Outstanding Waters designation to protect headwaters, the designation for wilderness and contiguous roadless areas makes New Mexico a leader in the West in using the Clean Water Act to protect the state’s waters.

See our Outstanding Waters Milestone page here.

For more information:  Bryan Bird, WildEarth Guardians, 505-988-9126 x1157,


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