In New Mexico, Pecos River Sustains Communities, Traditions, and Wildlife

Diverse coalition petitions state to protect clean, free-flowing waters from pollution and other threats

In New Mexico, Pecos River Sustains Communities, Traditions, and Wildlife
Upper Pecos Watershed
Despite its extraordinary recreational, ecological, economic, and cultural significance, the Upper Pecos Watershed—with its miles of rivers and streams in northern New Mexico—is under threat from development.
Jim O’Donnell

The Pecos River in northern New Mexico is the lifeblood of a vibrant riverine ecosystem, supporting numerous wildlife species while providing clean drinking water to surrounding communities and locally renowned trout fishing and whitewater boating. Originating in the Pecos Wilderness of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Pecos River is in the southernmost section of the Rocky Mountains. It flows through broad valleys, conifer forests, deep canyons, and desert tablelands and is home to rainbow, Rio Grande cutthroat, and brown trout. With a watershed extending over 400 square miles, the Pecos is a cold-water oasis in a desert-like environment.

A local coalition of tribal leaders, business owners, water users, anglers, and conservationists has been working to preserve the rivers and streams in this productive and valuable watershed for current and future generations. On April 20, that work took a big step forward when the New Mexico Acequia Association, San Miguel County, the Town of Pecos, the Upper Pecos Watershed Association, and Molino de la Isla Organics LLC, a large local farm, submitted a petition asking the state government to designate 14.1 miles of the Pecos River and 56.2 miles of its tributaries in the Upper Pecos Watershed as Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRWs) under the federal Clean Water Act.

By taking that action the state would help local farms, including many run by families, that rely on access to clean water from these rivers for crop irrigation, among other uses. The designation would also help sustain consumer spending that’s part of  the $2.3 billion annual outdoor recreation economy in the state.

Stewart Lake
With ONRW protections, rivers, streams, wetlands, and lakes—such as Stewart Lake, roughly 20 miles northeast of Santa Fe, New Mexico—would be safeguarded for future generations.
Sarah Richter

The ONRW provisions in the Clean Water Act allow states to permanently protect their highest quality, most valued surface waters, such as rivers, streams, lakes, or wetlands. ONRW designation means that no new or increased pollution is allowed on a waterway, although current uses may continue—including traditional activities such as grazing and acequia operations

Upper Pecos Watershed
The upper reach of the Pecos River supports a rich tradition of farming, ranching, and other longstanding uses, all of which depend on clean water.
Rachel Conn

As people say, agua es vida, and the waters and aquatic life of New Mexico’s Upper Pecos Watershed have supported the Pecos Pueblo people for generations and remain culturally significant to them today. Farmers, ranchers, and anglers also depend on the watershed for their livelihoods and way of life. Thanks in part to a long history of respect for and stewardship of the environment among those who live in the area, most of the waters of the Upper Pecos remain clean and healthy, and eligible for ONRW designation.  

Pecos River
The clean, clear waters of the Pecos River serve as a home to one of the few remaining populations of New Mexico’s native cutthroat trout, and its waters sustain Rocky Mountain bighorn, pictured here, elk, mule deer, mountain lions, bobcats, and golden eagles.
U.S. Forest Service

ONRW designation would help protect the Pecos watershed from numerous threats, including erosion and runoff from new road construction and extractive activities that could degrade these pristine waters. And, as droughts and monsoons in the region worsen—due, experts say, to climate change—safeguarding clean, free-flowing water is even more important.   

In the coming months, the public will have an opportunity to submit comments on the ONRW petition to New Mexico’s Water Quality Control Commission. The commission will weigh the contributions of the river to downstream water users, outdoor enthusiasts, tribal interests, and traditional uses against future activities that would exploit the watershed. The Pew Charitable Trusts joins the petitioners in urging the commission to safeguard this natural asset to help current and future generations of New Mexicans and visitors thrive.

Nicole Cordan oversees river corridor work for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.

Rivers
Rivers
Quiz

Find Out Which River Species You Are

Quick View
Quiz

Are you most like a beaver, damselfly, salmon, Oregon spotted frog, river otter, hellbender, or Gila trout? These are just some of the thousands of species critical to healthy North American rivers. Let’s see which one you identify with. On to the quiz!

River
River
Opinion

Free-Flowing Rivers Help Ecosystems, Wildlife, People, and the Economy

Quick View
Opinion

Faced with the many risks and tragedies of this challenging spring of 2020, people have sought solace wherever they can find it, and for many that has been in the beauty of nature, from standing by a stream in their nearby park to contemplating the grandeur of America’s public lands and rivers.

Article

5 Reasons the U.S. Needs Free-Flowing Rivers

Quick View
Article

Free-flowing rivers are the lifeblood of wild landscapes, providing habitat and food to myriad aquatic and terrestrial plant and animal species. Rivers are also the source of more than two-thirds of the drinking water in the United States, yet fewer than 1 percent of those waterways fall under federal or state protection.

Quiz

How Much Do You Know About Wildlife Migration and Free-Flowing Rivers?

Quick View
Quiz

Sportsmen and women have long been at the front lines of conservation, recognizing that some of the best places to enjoy their pursuits are America’s wild public lands and rivers. National Hunting and Fishing Day was first celebrated in 1972, with a Presidential proclamation by President Richard Nixon, who said, “I urge all citizens to join with outdoor sportsmen in the wise use of our natural resources and in insuring their proper management for the benefit of future generations." Nearly 36 million Americans fish and 11.5 million hunt each year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.