Photo of the Rio Grande River for Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter website

By Denise Fort

Our state received another dubious honor recently, this time for being the most water stressed
state in the United States, paired with the United Arab Emirates. There is so much that should be
done in New Mexico, like charging for all water use, and so much that shouldn’t be done, like
exporting our water in the form of dairy products. It’s way too much to cover here, so I will just
focus on some of the environmental issues that are key.

The Trump Administration is moving to strip protections from rivers and other waters, the so-called WOTUS rule. As you’ve heard, New Mexico is one of the hardest hit states from this rollback.

My conclusion, based on several decades of battles over the reach of the federal Clean Water
Act, is that we need to seize the initiative and build our own program for protecting all waters in
the state.

One important caveat. Much of the discussion in the state has been over the state getting
“primacy” over the permit program that EPA now runs. The acronym is “NPDES” and it is the
program under which permits are given to companies that discharge pollutants to waterways.
Hence, with the Trump people rolling back the waters that are protected, there will be plenty of
polluters who will no longer need federal permits.

But fixing this problem doesn’t go far enough. We need to recognize that our waters need
protection from a variety of threats, as well as restoration where flows have been disrupted and
riparian areas destroyed. We should, as a state, protect all of our waters, including intermittent
streams, prairie potholes, groundwater dependent ecosystems, wetlands. As one group of water
policy advocates has put it:

Natural infrastructure should be part of the State’s water strategy. Protection of source waters
and ecosystem restoration can address multiple objectives, including increased flows and
resilience in light of climate change, fire, and other disruptions. The State should invest in
headwaters protection; appropriately reviewed forest and fire management; and restoration of
riparian, wetlands, aquatic, and floodplain systems and should manage flow regimes for these
benefits. The Office of State Engineer must further these goals through policies that
further in-stream flows.

What should we ask of the governor and state legislators?

The Interstate Stream Commission, the New Mexico Environment Department, the Department
of Game and Fish, and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department should develop
plans to restore native species and protect our living rivers. To that end, the Legislature should
establish and fund a Restore the Rivers Task Force to develop a plan to support ecological
functions in our rivers, using mechanisms such as protection of instream flows and protection of
riparian systems. We can fund water for rivers by using non-recurring revenues. These monies

can be directed to agricultural interests who wish to temporarily lease or retire water rights. The
Strategic River Reserve is an existing mechanism that can help protect many of the state’s rivers.
A corollary program, the “River Stewardship Program,” is a well received means of protecting
the recreational and tourist values of riparian areas.”

(From A White Paper; An Environmental Agenda for the New Governor and Legislature, December 2019)
Water quality in New Mexico’s rivers should be protected by a more comprehensive program
than the current EPA program. Too many exemptions, such as the exemption for irrigated
agriculture and for other types of pollution (“nonpoint source pollution” is the term) mean that
many of New Mexico’s waters are still polluted, years after the passage of the Clean Water Act,
Cleaning up pollution so that we have “fishable, swimmable” rivers is going to take boldness on
the part of our community, as we press for legislation that comprehensively addresses the
environmental condition of our rivers.

So, from an environmental perspective, we have to protect the water in our rivers, as well as the
quality of these waters, which is the focus of the EPA’s and the NM Environment Department’s
programs. Taking on environmental flows, or natural infrastructure, means that the water
agencies need to be given a larger mission. Reconciling the split between quantity and quality
management is part of Rep. Melanie Stansbury’s current focus. Let’s protect and restore our water.

New Mexico needs water reform