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New Mexico proposes special designation for waterways

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP)--All rivers, streams and creeks within federal wilderness areas in New Mexico would be designated as "outstanding waters'' under a draft proposal released June 19 by the state Environment Department.

The agency said the waterways deserve additional protection because they are sources of clean water that are used downstream for irrigation and public water systems.

Environment Secretary Ron Curry said the proposal strengthens protections that already exist in wilderness areas and requires that water quality is maintained or improved.

"We must guard our water supply for future generations,'' he said.

The Outstanding National Resource Waters designation has been used only twice in New Mexico--for the Rio Santa Barbara and for rivers within the Valle Vidal area.

Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana are among the other Western states using the designation to protect some of their waterways.

Environment officials, Gov. Bill Richardson and conservation groups began talking last year about a broad effort to protect headwaters on national forest land and in roadless areas from degradation under the state's water quality standards and the Clean Water Act.

The proposal announced June 19 includes only waters in the 16 wilderness areas in New Mexico that are managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Conservation groups estimate that nearly 1,000 river miles would be covered.

The public has until the end of August to comment on the proposal.

Some ranchers have voiced concerns about being able to continue with grazing and other historic uses of forest land. State officials said the proposal allows for existing activities to continue as long as they are managed to ensure that water quality is maintained.

"The Environment Department has taken seriously the concerns expressed during public meetings last fall and has developed a proposal that balances those concerns with strong protection of water quality in the state's headwater streams,'' Curry said.

Marcy Leavitt, director of the Environment Department's Water and Waste Management Division, said that once the comment period ends, the state Water Quality Control Commission will have to review and approve the proposal.

John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians, said June 19 that his group would have liked for the state's proposal to cover both wilderness and roadless areas.

Still, he praised state officials for seeking protections in the wilderness.

"Any time a state can do its part to protect waterways from the threats of everything from climate change to cattle grazing and everything in between, it's an important step,'' he said.



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