The hard work of a coalition of over fifty Tribal leaders, business owners, water users, anglers and conservationists to preserve the rivers and streams of northern New Mexico has paid off. Sections totaling 125.9 miles of the Upper Pecos, Rio Grande, Rio Hondo, Jemez River, San Antonio Creek and Redondo Creek just received the state’s highest water quality protections from the Water Quality Control Commission.
The Land of Enchantment’s northern rivers and streams flow through broad valleys, conifer forests, deep canyons, desert tablelands and are home to rainbow, Rio Grande cutthroat and brown trout. Residents rely on the rivers and streams for drinking water, jobs, electricity, recreation and spiritual renewal.
The Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRW) designations given these rivers and streams, under the federal Clean Water Act, ensures the health and resilience of these valuable watersheds are protected and preserved for current and future generations. The designation protects 125 miles of watershed in perpetuity for recreationists, local parciantes [individual irrigators who own water rights], and wildlife.
The protection comes in response to growing threats from numerous sources that could jeopardize the state’s critical rivers, streams and springs. These include population growth bringing increased demand for water, dams changing natural flow patterns, agricultural irrigation emptying river beds and rising temperatures from climate change.
The ONRW designations for the rivers and streams drew backing from the New Mexico Environment Department, Game and Fish, and the Outdoor Recreation Division based on their recreational, ecological, and cultural significance. The designation prohibits any new activities and developments that might degrade water quality.
Existing land or water uses for farming and ranching, including traditional activities such as grazing and acequia operations are not affected by the designation. Most regional livestock grazing occurs downstream or away from the protected river stretches.
“Our parciantes cherish our local rivers,” said Elias Espinoza, Mayordomo of the Acequia de San Antonio, which feeds from the Rio Hondo. “We all depend on clean unpolluted waters from our local river for our quality of life.”
Included in the 125.9 miles are:
• Rio Grande from the New Mexico-Colorado state line to the confluence with Rio Pueblo de Taos.
• Rio Hondo headwaters to the Carson National Forest boundary.
• Lake Fork headwaters to the confluence with the Rio Hondo.
• East Fork Jemez River headwaters to the confluence with San Antonio Creek.
• San Antonio Creek headwaters to the confluence with East Fork Jemez River.
• Redondo Creek headwaters to the confluence with Sulphur Creek.
Outdoor Recreation director Axie Navas said the state wants to work with communities to promote sustainable growth of New Mexico’s outdoor economy. “That can only happen if these areas where people recreate and access our beautiful lands and waters are protected.”
The designation helps sustain consumer spending that’s part of the $2.3 billion annual outdoor recreation economy in the state.
In 2019, Taos and Sandoval counties, where the protections will take effect, the tourism and outdoor recreation sectors constituted 29.6 percent of jobs in Taos County and 10.1 percent of jobs in Sandoval County. In Sandoval County, recreation is the single biggest spending category, with $77.9 million in direct visitor spending in 2019. For Taos County, 2019 visitor spending on recreation reached almost $30 million, having increased steadily each year since at least 2013.
“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,” Brophy Toledo, Jemez cultural leader and co-founder of Flower Hill Institute, said. “We, as Native Peoples, see the sacredness of the water ecosystems that sustain life for all the birds and animals, plants, and aquatic life that humans greatly benefit from. These protections ensure that sacred practices and irrigation can continue without additional requirements while also ensuring that new or increased pollution to the watershed is prohibited.”