Conserving watersheds will preserve clean water, cultural history, traditional irrigation, outdoor recreation

Contacts:
Tannis Fox, Western Environmental Law Center, 505-629-0732, Roberta Salazar, acequia parciante, executive director of Rivers & Birds, 575-776-7159,  Ralph Vigil, owner, Molino de la Isla Organics, 505-603-2879, Nick Streit, owner, Taos Fly Shop and The Reel Life, 575-751-1312,

A diverse coalition, including Tribal leaders and governments, community members, local governments, farmers, acequia members, water conservation groups, and outdoor recreationists applaud the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission’s (WQCC) unanimous decision today to protect streams and wetlands in the Upper Pecos Watershed and significant portions of the Rio Grande, Rio Hondo, Lake Fork, East Fork Jemez River, San Antonio Creek, and Redondo Creek with Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRW) designations.

Outstanding Waters designation for these ecologically and recreationally significant waters will support and protect existing community uses, such as ranching and farming while prohibiting new pollution from impacting these watersheds.

The WQCC heard public and technical testimony at public hearings in April and June and deliberated and voted to approve the designations at a public meeting on Tuesday, July 12. More than 3,800 public comments were submitted in support of the two nominations.

The Pecos Watershed is the ancestral homeland of the Pecos Pueblo, whose descendants still consider the area culturally significant. Spanish settlers came to the area in the mid-16th century, and their descendants depend on the region for traditional land-use practices like growing crops and raising livestock. Today, dozens of acequias divert from the Pecos River and clean water from the Upper Pecos Watershed is vital for local food, agriculture, and local economies.

“I applaud the WQCC for standing with New Mexicans to protect the lifeblood of our community,” said San Miguel County Commissioner Janice Varela. “From water for drinking and agriculture to outdoor recreation and tourism dollars, the Upper Pecos Watershed sustains us.”

For centuries, people in northern New Mexico have depended on clean water in the Rio Hondo, Upper Rio Grande, and Jemez watersheds to water livestock and feed acequia systems. The waters in and around the Valles Caldera National Preserve also hold significance for many Pueblos. This designation will ensure that clean water flows downstream to these critical watershed stakeholders and protect these traditional uses from adverse impacts.

“Since time immemorial and still today, the Rio Jemez and its headwaters are the lifeblood of our people and the ecosystems that are connected to this very special place in our ancestral homelands,” said Brophy Toledo, Jemez cultural leader and co-founder of Flower Hill Institute. “We as Native Peoples see the sacredness of the water ecosystems that sustain life for all the birds and animals, plants, and the aquatic life that humans greatly benefit from. These protections ensure that sacred practices and irrigation can continue without additional requirements while ensuring that new or increased pollution to the watershed is prohibited.”

The designated waters are rich with ecological resources and provide significant recreational opportunities for both New Mexicans and out-of-state visitors alike, and represent some of the most popular fishing destinations in the state. These waters draw locals and visitors to hike, bike, camp, fish, hunt, raft, kayak, and bird and wildlife watch and who, in turn, help support local businesses. New Mexicans and visitors travel to the Rio Grande Gorge and marvel at its 800-foot canyon walls; they hike along the Rio Hondo as they make their way to the state’s highest point Wheeler Peak; and they cast their lines for brown trout in the East Fork of the Jemez, surrounded by the grandeur of the Valles Caldera. Pecos Canyon in the Upper Pecos Watershed is one of the state’s top outdoor tourism destinations and popular among New Mexicans for a variety of outdoor activities.

“People from all over the world are drawn to recreate on this beautiful iconic stretch of the Rio Grande and its tributaries,” said Cisco Guevera, owner of Los Rio River Runners, the oldest river rafting company in New Mexico. “This portion of the Rio Grande is one of the most popular recreational areas in the state of New Mexico. These Outstanding Waters designations benefit present and future generations, reinforce our local tourism economy and honor these extraordinary waters by protecting our water.”

These designations fit squarely within and further Governor Lujan Grisham’s efforts to diversify the state’s economy and build climate change resiliency as set forth in Executive Order 2021-052.

Find more information at OurNMWaters.org.

Background:

  • Upper Pecos Watershed Outstanding Waters designation:
    • The New Mexico Acequia Association, San Miguel County, the Village of Pecos, the Upper Pecos Watershed Association, and Molino de la Isla Organics LLC filed the petition with the commission, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center.
    • The designation includes 179 miles of streams and rivers and 42 acres of wetlands of the Pecos River Watershed as ONRWs.
    • More than 30 Pueblos, local governments, acequia associations, legislators, businesses, and nonprofit organizations submitted letters of support, including the All Pueblo Council of Governors and the New Mexico Acequia Commission.
    • The clean, clear waters of the upper Pecos River and its tributaries are a refuge for Rio Grande cutthroat trout and significant investments have been made to conserve this species across the state.  The area is also home to Rocky Mountain bighorn, elk, mule deer, mountain lions, bobcats, and golden eagles.
    • In 2013, anglers alone spent $29 million in San Miguel County, while hunters spent more than $18 million.
    • The designated stretch of the Pecos is the 2nd most popular place to fish in the state.

 

  • Rio Grande, Rio Hondo, Lake Fork, East Fork Jemez River, San Antonio Creek, and Redondo Creek Outstanding Waters designation:
    • Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Outdoor Recreation Division filed the petition with the commission, represented by counsel from the Western Environmental Law Center.
    • The designation includes more than 125 miles of the Rio Grande, Rio Hondo, Lake Fork, East Fork Jemez River, San Antonio Creek, and Redondo Creek.
    • Fifty Pueblos, local governments, acequia associations, land grants, schools, neighborhood associations, businesses, and nonprofit organizations submitted letters of support or passed resolutions supporting the petition, including the All Pueblo Council of Governors and the New Mexico Acequia Commission.
    • In 2019, outdoor recreation constituted 29.6% of jobs in Taos County and 10.1% of jobs in Sandoval County.
    • In 2020-21, about 30,000 anglers fished the designated stretch of the Upper Rio Grande, accounting for about 80,000 visitor days, making it the 4th most popular place to fish in the state.
    • In 2020-21, more than 23,000 anglers fished the designated stretch of the East Fork Jemez, making it the 6th most popular place to fish in the state.
    • The designated streams are home to numerous state species of greatest conservation need.

Additional community support:

“For generations, our ancestors and the acequia community have depended on clean water from these rivers to feed acequia systems, for drinking, and local food production.  In this megadrought era, protecting our rivers is more important than ever. ” says Roberta Salazar an acequia parciante and Executive Director of Rivers & Birds. “These Outstanding Water Designations support traditional  practices, such as farming and ranching and will prohibit new pollution from impacting our watersheds and our traditional way of life.”

“The streams nominated for outstanding waters protection in Taos County and the Valles Caldera represent some of the best fly fishing in New Mexico,” says Nick Streit, owner of Taos Fly Shop and The Reel Life. “Our fly fishing shops in Taos and Santa Fe probably wouldn’t be in business if we didn’t guide to the Rio Grande and Jemez waters. Keeping these streams clean keeps the fish healthy, and helps keep our business and lots of other outdoor recreation businesses in New Mexico thriving. Giving these waters the highest level of protection is a win for the fish, their habitat, and anglers and recreationists throughout the state.”

“These areas, cherished for their wild beauty, are threatened by climate change, drought, and increased human activity. All of which increase the potential for degradation to these waters in the short and long term,” says Rachel Conn, deputy director of Amigos Bravos. “To protect these waters’ recreational, ecological, cultural, and economic significance, it is imperative that the state act now to preserve and promote their benefits by designating them as ONRWs.”

“The ecological significance of these waters cannot be overstated. They provide rich riparian habitat to diverse communities of animal and plant life, including at-risk species like the southwestern willow flycatcher and Jemez Mountains salamander, and our state fish, the Rio Grande cutthroat trout,” says Tannis Fox, senior attorney with Western Environmental Law Center and counsel in both petitions. “Acequias, farmers, and ranchers depend upon these waters for their livelihoods. Pueblos have relied upon these waters since time immemorial. Recreationists from local communities and all around the world enjoy these waters and help power New Mexico’s outdoor recreation economy. Keeping these waters clean is of paramount importance to local communities and the state as a whole.”

Photos for media use:

Ralph Vigil agriculture photo

Photo credit: Jim O’Donnell
Caption: Pecos acequia farmer Ralph Vigil works to bring water into his fields. Vigil, owner of Molina de la Isla Organics, is one of the five local petitioners that requested Outstanding Waters designations from the Water Quality Control Commission for miles of streams and wetlands in the Upper Pecos Watershed.

Recreation family kayaking photo

Photo credit: Courtesy of Amigos Bravos
Caption: Outstanding Waters designations identify and protect ecologically and recreationally significant waters and support and protect existing community uses, such as ranching and farming, while prohibiting new pollution from impacting these watersheds.

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