Ralph Vigil’s farm in Pecos, New Mexico depends on the Pecos River as it has for 13 years, the same river that runs across almost the entire eastern side of the state, crossing its southern border with Texas in the southeast corner.
What happens in the headwaters of the Pecos where Vigil grows vegetables like lettuce and tomatoes has a direct impact, he said, on the rest of the river – even hundreds of miles south cities like Roswell or Carlsbad.
“Our watersheds are extremely important to a lot of our traditional communities in New Mexico. The health of that watershed is vital,” Vigil said. “If we don’t have healthy watersheds, we don’t have healthy communities beneath them.”
The northern portion of the Pecos River could gain state protections as conservationists sought to prevent development in an area they argued was biologically diverse and crucial to New Mexico’s environment.
The Upper Pecos Watershed covers about 400 square miles of the Pecos River and its tributaries, centered in San Miguel County in northern New Mexico. The southern portion of the river runs through Carlsbad and the Permian Basin area into West Texas.
It’s the beginning of the larger Pecos River, which flows through the eastern part of the state down to its southern border with Texas – a key water supply for southeast New Mexico cities like Roswell, Carlsbad and Artesia.
Water quality up there is tied to the rest of the river which southeast New Mexico’s farmers and ranchers depend on.
And it could be threatened by ongoing mining interests such as the recently proposed Tererro Mine by a Colorado company Comexico which is a subsidiary New World Resources from Australia.
During just the exploratory phase of the project, Comexico wants to drill 30 holes, 500 to 4,000 feet deep which could contaminate the Upper Pecos Watershed, environmentalists warned and impact ecosystems in the area.
Water users like that, Vigil said, have little interest in local communities aside from extracting minerals beneath them.
“If we have mining interests and other interests involved and destroying, they don’t have any interest except for what’s below. It’s not a wise use of our watersheds,” he said. “All the communities it touches all the way up here and then down where it dumps into the Rio Grande, we need to keep it healthy. “
Taking action to protect the Pecos
A group of local government and conservationists created a petition calling for New Mexico’s Water Quality Control Commission to list the watershed as an outstanding national resource water (ONRW), which could preserve the cleanliness of the water while allowing recreation, agriculture and other traditional uses.
The petition was created by a coalition of entities including the Village of Pecos, San Miguel County, New Mexico Acequia Association, the Upper Pecos Watershed Association, and Molino de la Isla Organics.
“An ONRW designation is one of the most effective tools available to state leaders when it comes to protecting our waters and ensuring that the communities that depend on them have access to clean water for traditional uses, outdoor recreation, and more,” the petition read.
The protection would apply to only the Upper Watershed near Pecos, New Mexico, a village about 30 miles east of Santa Fe.
But Rachel Conn, a consultant on the project and projects director with Amigos Bravos, a statewide conservation group based in Taos, said water quality in the headwaters could impact water availability and cleanliness in areas like Carlsbad.
“Protecting the water quality in the headwaters ensures there’s clean water flowing down to the rest of the state,” she said. “And that in turn relates to the amount of water that’s available. If the water is too polluted, it’s not useable.”
Even worse, the eastern region of the state along the river suffered from worsening drought conditions in recent months, exacerbating water scarcity and increasing the need to conserve, Conn said.
The U.S. Drought Monitor showed San Miguel County was in “extreme drought” – the second-highest designation – but following the river south into DeBaca, Chaves and Eddy counties there the worst drought class “exceptional drought” set in.
That means depleted surface water and increased fire danger problems that could be mitigated by protecting the river where it starts in the Upper Pecos Watershed.
“You’re getting all the benefits of protecting the headwaters, but what happens between the headwaters and the lower parts of the river is not affected,” Conn said. “There’s a big political difference.”
The goal is not to block all uses on the river, she said.
‘We see the connections’ to the river
An ONRW listing would allow uses like fishing, recreation and agriculture, she said, while ensuring the river’s water quality is preserved. The designation does not impact ongoing uses of the river, but would prohibit new or increasing sources of pollution.
“We see the connections and relationships people have with the river as part of the farming and ranching activities they and their families have engaged in for generations,” Conn said. “That’s part of protecting the river. It’s an intimate relationship with the watershed that results in stewardship. I don’t see them as separate.”
New Mexico’s Democrat Congresspeople recently called on the State of New Mexico to place an ONRW designation on the Upper Pecos Watershed, penning a letter to the Water Quality Control Commission in March.
U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan along with U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez signed the letter, calling the designation a way to protect New Mexico’s waters but also support the State’s rich history of use along the river.
“The iconic Upper Pecos watershed is the lifeblood of the region’s economy, ecosystem and way of life,” the letter read. “We support this this ONRW designation to protect traditional agriculture and a way of life for our children and grandchildren and ask you to please support this nomination.”
A month before, Heinrich and Lujan introduced the Pecos Watershed Protection Act that would remove all federal-managed minerals in the water shed from being leased or extracted, an effort to protect the Upper Pecos from the impacts of hard-rock mining.
“The Pecos watershed is one of those places where the community has come together and said that the river at the heart of this valley, and at the heart of this community, is literally the most important thing we can protect and pass on to our heirs,” Heinrich said.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.