Protecting New Mexico's Clean Water and Water Resources

Western Environmental Law Center has a long-standing commitment to protect and defend New Mexico’s rivers, streams, and waters. In this arid climate, these waters are lifeblood of the people, wildlands and wildlife. For more than a decade, we have worked hard to level the playing field between conservation interests and industry expedience. 

In 2004, our advocacy led to the designatation of the Rio Santa Barbara as New Mexico’s first Outstanding National Resource Water (ONRW), one of the highest forms of protection under the Clean Water Act.

In 2005, we followed up this victory by successfully advocating for the designation of the Waters of the Valle Vidal as New Mexico’s second Outstanding National Resource Water, a victory that helped defeat an ill-conceived proposal to drill the Valle Vidal for coalbed methane.

In 2007, we won revised rules supporting watershed restoration projects in the Rio Santa Barbara and Waters of the Valle Vidal.

In 2010, we joined forces with Amigos Bravos, as well as newfound allies at New Mexico Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, New Mexico Trout, and New Mexico Wildlife Federation, to win protection for New Mexico’s Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRWs). Specifically, in November of 2010, several years of hard work to designate protection for the important headwaters and Wilderness rivers came to fruition: the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission designated all perennial rivers, streams, and wetlands in U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Areas as Outstanding National Resource Waters

The New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission also approved a hard-fought compromise proposal regarding the rules governing all Outstanding National Resource Waters in New Mexico that WELC negotiated.  The total coverage of the new designations are approximately 1.4 million acres of protected watersheds, 700 miles of protected perennial rivers and streams, 29 lakes, and 5,400 acres of wetlands.  We are pleased that the Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRWs) remain a strong tool for river, stream, and wetland conservation in New Mexico.

Also in 2010, we successfully concluded a decade-long battle to strengthen standards for radionuclides in waters below Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) – the location of the Manhattan Project and ongoing nuclear weapon production.

Update: In 2013, the New Mexico Supreme Court has rejected an attempt by the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association to reverse historic water quality protections put in place by the state Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) in December of 2010. The ruling puts to rest an extended legal battle over the WQCC’s decision to designate rivers and streams located in Wilderness Areas as Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRWs). In their unanimous decision the court “quashed” the Cattle Growers last ditch legal maneuver to reverse the protections. The Court found that the cattle growers did not demonstrate “adverse harm” by the protections and thus did not have the standing to challenge the designation.  

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