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New Mexico rivers top endangered list


The American Rivers conservation group placed all of New Mexico’s rivers, collectively, on its annual list of America’s most endangered rivers, released Monday.

All streams and wetlands as well as rivers such as the Rio Grande, Gila, Pecos and San Juan, are seen in the report as particularly vulnerable to the loss of federal protections subsequent to a 2023 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The report also lists 10 other locations in the U.S. and Mexico, with riverways and wetlands endangered due to pumping, excessive use, pollution, development, conditions related to climate change or outdated management policies.

The report cites the importance of New Mexico’s waterways for food production, drinking and outdoor recreation as a major part of its economy, as well as role of the state’s acequia system for local communities as well as Indigenous governments in the state.

Yet New Mexico lacked its own permitting process for monitoring surface water pollution when the nation’s high court struck down federal clean water protections, in Sackett v. EPA, last year.

That case involved an Idaho couple seeking to build a home on wetlands near Priest Lake. The court, ruling in the property owners’ favor, scaled back federal Clean Water Act protections in place for decades.

“The court decision scaled back … safeguards to include protections only for ‘relatively permanent’ streams, and wetlands with a ‘continuous surface connection’ to these protected streams,” the American Rivers report states.

It argues that New Mexico’s waterways are hit hardest because the majority of its streams and wetlands could lose protections they enjoy from programs administered by two federal agencies: “…Streams that only run during the rainy season or for periods of the year after snowmelt — which is very typical in this arid state — no longer have federal protections,” it writes.

Senator Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., blasted the Sackett ruling in a statement issued with the report’s release.

Our state is experiencing some of the worst consequences of climate change, including prolonged drought and aridification,” he said. “What we didn’t need was the Supreme Court’s radical majority making it harder to protect our waterways. But they won’t get the last word when it comes to our water. I’m committed to ensuring all New Mexicans have access to clean water and a stable foundation for the future.”

In October, U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., was a lead sponsor of a bill to re-establish federal protections struck down by the Sackett ruling. H.R. 5983, the Clean Water Act of 2023, has been in the committee process since October. Responding to the American Rivers report, Stansbury wrote, “…this isn’t just a local issue but a national call to action for sustainable water management and environmental stewardship.”

The immediate implication was described in dire terms by Tricia Snyder, director of New Mexico Wild’s rivers and waters program, who stated in a news release: “New Mexico’s waters are threatened like never before.”


Filling gaps in protection

The New Mexico Legislature responded to the Supreme Court’s ruling during the most recent legislative session, appropriating $7.6 million to start a state permitting program and expand groundwater monitoring.

Shelly Lemon, surface water quality bureau chief at the New Mexico Environment Department, said in an interview that the state actually began moving forward on its own water protections during the Donald Trump Administration, which established an administrative rule in 2020 that rolled back Clean Water Act protections and deregulated wetlands. The rule is no longer in place following its replacement in January 2023.

“We knew that this Sackett ruling was coming … but we started down this path in 2020, and we got a small appropriation in 2022 from the legislative session to really begin the work,” she recalled.

“With this funding, we’re looking at developing a state program to issue permits for similar activities — either direct discharges or discharges of dredge and fill to surface waters of the state,” she said.

The state’s water quality standards are already in statute, along with regulations protecting surface- and groundwater. Now, New Mexico would build a permitting structure for facilities or people to discharge pollutants and to assure those do not contaminate or impair water systems. The permitting program would require new regulations, and if the state assumes responsibility for protections scaled back at the EPA, Lemon said legislation would be needed as well.

The federal programs helping New Mexico waterways will continue, she said. “They’re scaled back because the Clean Water Act has been scaled back. What the state of New Mexico is trying to do is fill the gap from what’s been done over the last 50 years (up to) this Supreme Court ruling.”

American Rivers conservation group, New Mexico’s rivers, endangered rivers