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Every New Mexico river endangered and vulnerable to contamination, according to national report


Every New Mexico river endangered and vulnerable to contamination, according to national report

Apr 17, 2024 | 5:35 am ET
By Leah Romero
Every New Mexico river endangered and vulnerable to contamination, according to national report
Water flows through the Rio Grande on April 16, 2024 near the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park in Doña Ana County. (Photo by Leah Romero fr Source NM)

There are over 108,000 miles of river in New Mexico, all of which were deemed the most endangered in the country recently by a national report. 

American Rivers is a national nonprofit organization concerned with conservation and advocacy on behalf of the country’s rivers. The organization releases an annual report listing the country’s top 10 endangered rivers for the year. 

New Mexico waterways have made the list in recent years. This year the organization found enough evidence to show that recent rollbacks in national streams and wetlands protections place up to 95% of the state’s rivers in jeopardy. 

“When you have a national report that singles out New Mexico, it should be a very big wake up call,” said Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. “We should be looking at how we can protect these waters because our state is unique in how dependent our communities are on these very small drain systems.”

WOTUS rule offers certainty, but little clarity for New Mexico waters

The report cites the May 2023 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in the case of Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency

The case reintroduced the question of what constitutes “waters of the U.S.” which have more protections under the 1972 Clean Water Act. 

The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, ultimately decided that these waters were defined as “a relatively permanent body of water connected to traditional interstate navigable waters.” 

Wetlands were defined as having “a continuous surface connection with that water, making it difficult to determine where the ‘water’ ends and the ‘wetland’ begins.”

Water experts and conservationists note that the definition of a “relatively permanent” body of water is vague and places several of New Mexico’s rivers – which do not have water for months out of the year – at risk of contamination. 

New Mexico’s surface water is at a higher risk due to the state’s arid climate and reliance on dwindling waters for drinking, agriculture and recreation.

Garcia said New Mexico’s smaller streams and acequias, which flow as tributaries to larger rivers, are particularly endangered because they are reliant on open dams, rainfall or snowpack runoff.

New Mexico is one of three states, including New Hampshire and Massachuttes, without a state-based surface water quality permitting program. 

State environment department leaders and legislators started the process of implementing such a program before the Supreme Court decision, according to Tricia Snyder, Rivers and Waters program director for New Mexico Wild. 

The 2024 state legislature appropriated $7.6 million to the New Mexico Environment Department’s water quality management fund to develop the permitting program. The money was designated through the General Appropriation Act of 2024. However, planning is still in the early stages and it could be several more years before New Mexico has it set up. 

Source New Mexico reached out to the New Mexico Environment Department for comment but received no response. We will update if and when we receive that reponse.

Rachel Cann, deputy director at the water conservation organization Amigos Bravos, explained that the lack of a state permitting program was not a major priority in the past since the federal government issued permits.

She added that New Mexico’s smaller waterways and the lack of a permitting program is why the state is “really feeling the brunt” of the federal protection rollbacks. 

Matt Rice, southwest regional director for American Rivers, said this recent report is the first time in the organization’s 40 years where an entire state’s rivers were named on the list.

“There wasn’t just one river we could point to that was facing a specific threat,” Rice said. “Because there aren’t that many large rivers in New Mexico, all the rivers I think, have a more urgent importance.”

Rice pointed out that while New Mexico rivers have appeared on the endangered list in recent years, the contributing factors have largely been addressed by state and local governments as well as advocacy organizations. 

While the designation of most endangered in the country is striking, Rice said the story is “not a sad one.” The Gila, Pecos and Gallinas rivers have all appeared on the list in recent years for diversion plans, mining proposals and wildfire damage respectively. However, Rice said “tremendous progress” has been made in addressing the dangers to each river. 

“(The list) is showing that New Mexico is doing things the right way. They’re proactively working to establish their own program to protect their water, because only New Mexicans know how important their rivers and streams are to them,” Rice said.