On November 30, 2010, the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission made an historic decision to protect headwater streams on wild national forests throughout the state. Thanks to its decision, over 700 miles of 199 perennial rivers and streams, 29 lakes, and approximately 6,000 acres of wetlands are now "Outstanding Waters" under the Clean Water Act, affecting nearly 1.4 million acres of land. The waters protected include perennial streams within 12 of New Mexico’s national forest wilderness areas, ensuring the state's supply of water remains pristine.
The commission approved the statement of reasons supporting its ONRW decision on Monday, December 13. The changes to the standards filed with the State Records Center will go into effect 30 days after filing. Click on the new standards, procedures and guidance below.
This permanent protection of the state's most pristine waters and forests is an extraordinary conservation action and is likely the single largest designation of outstanding waters in the history of the Clean Water Act. The designation by the state offers significant protection of clean waters and wild forests, prohibiting any pollution from activities such as logging, off-highway vehicles, mining, livestock grazing 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. As a result, National Forest Wilderness areas currently not grazed by domestic livestock - almost 800,000 acres all - will likely remain protected with the Outstanding Waters designation.
We began this initiative in 2005 when we first developed the strategy of protecting roadless national forests with this powerful Clean Water Act tool. We faced opposition at every turn from the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association, which even tried to stop the public hearings from proceeding with a last minute court order. The members of the Cattlegrowers were sadly misinformed and continue to be opposed to clean water protections despite an explicit exemption for existing grazing operations.
New Mexico's Clean Waters, Wild Forests
The Clean Water Act and EPA’s Antidegradation Rules allow for a state to assert its rights to permanent clean water through "Outstanding Waters" designations. Because states are delegated authority with implementing and complying with the CWA, they are charged with developing water quality standards that provide opportunities to protect the most vital ecological and recreational waters within their borders. Some states have had the foresight to use the protective designation broadly to protect their headwaters from contamination. In Utah, all waters within the U.S. Forest Service boundaries are designated as Outstanding and in Colorado most waters in U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Areas have the protection and its conferred routinely when new Wilderness is added to the system.
Inventoried Roadless Areas are undeveloped lands found on U.S. National Forests that do not currently enjoy the permanent protection of a Congressionally designated wilderness area but are often given some degree of administrative protection in Forest Plans. These forests are often adjacent to wilderness areas, and are very rugged and share segments of headwater streams and rivers. Forest Service roadless areas have been the subject of numerous administrative and legal skirmishes and still await some permanent conservation status.
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 pristine water to New Mexicans including small farmers, acequias, wildlife, recreationists and others.