New Mexico Supreme Court Upholds Water Quality Protections

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.

Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who represented Amigos Bravos, New Mexico Wildlife Federation, NM Trout, and NM Backcountry Hunters and Anglers throughout the 5-year process commented that “ONRW protections offer a solution to many of the threats faced by New Mexico’s waters, such as from climate change. By protecting existing ONRWs, and designating new, ecologically important ONRWs, we can improve the resiliency of our environment and, in so doing, protect clean water for all New Mexicans.”

NM Trout was a party to the original petition and (then president) Rudy Rios and Conservation Chair (Ron Loehman) testified before the NM Water Quality Control Commission in support of the ONRW designation for headwater streams in NM wilderness areas. ONRW status provides an extra layer of protection against degradation of those streams.

The landmark 2010 WQCC decision at the heart of the dispute granted special protections to 700 miles of 199 perennial rivers and streams, 29 lakes, and approximately 6,000 acres of wetlands affecting close to 1.4 million acres of land. These recreationally and ecologically important rivers, streams and other waters, are now afforded the highest level of protection under the federal Clean Water Act.

“We are thrilled that this prolonged legal battle has finally come to a close,” said Rachel Conn with Amigos Bravos. “We have been, and continue to be perplexed about why the Cattle Growers opposed these designations. ONRW protections respect the people’s connection to these waters by allowing pre-existing activities, such as acequia irrigation, restoration projects, and grazing to continue while at the same time prohibits new sources of pollution. It is a win-win situation. We hope that the Cattle Growers will recognize the value that this decision has to New Mexico and work constructively with us to protect New Mexico’s waters.”

The Court’s decision can be found here.