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New rule boosts protection for waters

The Raton Range of Raton, New Mexico

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The state Water Quality Control Commission last week adopted a rule that requires the State of New Mexico to protect the state's headwater streams in federally designated wilderness areas.

The rule triggers the attachment of an Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRW) designation to wilderness-area waters. The designation — first created several years ago — will go into effect on the wilderness-area waters Dec. 30 and means increased water-quality protections.

Waters in northeast New Mexico's Carson National Forest will be impacted, including those in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness area. The wilderness area is in Taos County, but its eastern edge borders Colfax County's western side.

"These waters represent some of our most valuable waters for drinking, for ecological value, and for recreational value," Gov. Bill Richardson said. "The designation will protect these waters for current and future generations in New Mexico."

ONRW status is authorized under the state Water Quality Act and the federal Clean Water Act. The designation will protect about 700 miles of 195 rivers and streams, 29 lakes, and about 4,930 acres of 1,405 wetlands in 12 wilderness areas. Protection of the headwaters "will help maintain a clean water supply for uses in wilderness and for downstream uses by municipalities, agriculture, and recreational interests, and will help maintain healthy ecosystems, preserve habitat and protect vulnerable and endangered species," according to the state.

The designation prohibits any long-term degradation of the areas around the bodies of water from activities such as livestock grazing, logging, off-highway vehicles, mining, and energy development.

However, the rule approved by a 7-3 vote of the Water Quality Control Commission, exempts existing grazing practices and acequia maintenance and repair from the designation.

"I am proud of this effort because our arid state deserves special protections for our precious rivers and streams," said New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry.

In order to maximize public participation in the ONRW proposal, state agencies engaged in a two-year public outreach effort, which included drafting three proposals for which public comment was considered. The state also held 21 meetings throughout the state in areas potentially affected. The ONRW outreach effort was the most extensive public participation effort on a water quality initiative undertaken by the state.

On Earth Day in 2008, Richardson announced the state's intention to seek ONRW designation for surface waters within Forest Service wilderness areas. The New Mexico Environment Department took the lead in the petition, assisted by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. The three state agencies filed a petition with the Commission in February of this year nominating all perennial surface waters — those that flow year-round — in Forest Service wilderness areas as ONRWs. The Water Quality Control Commission did not adopt a proposed expansion of the state's petition presented by Amigos Bravos and Wild Earth Guardians that would have designated all streams, whether or not perennial.

In 2006, rivers and streams in the Valle Vidal in Colfax and Taos counties received the ONRW designation.

Copyright 2010 The Raton Range, Raton, New Mexico. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: December 10, 2010

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