On November 30, the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission voted 7-3 to approve a Richardson administration proposal to give the highest level of protection under state law to more than 700 miles of rivers and streams, more than two dozen lakes and thousands of acres of wetlands in U.S. Forest Service wilderness areas in NM. It is one of the single largest designations in the history of the Clean Water Act. The designations join the only others in the state: the Río Santa Barbara and the waters of the Valle Vidal.

Governor Richardson had been pushing for the “Outstanding National Resource Waters” designation since 2008. State officials say the “no pollution” standard will prohibit any activities, including cattle grazing, that would degrade water quality.

“These protections will provide impressive water quality protections for not only these headwaters, but downstream towns, ranchers, farmers and others,” said Rachel Conn of the conservation group Amigos Bravos. “The decision respects the people’s connection to these waters by grandfathering pre-existing activities such as acequia irrigation on the lands.

The commission’s decision was not, however, unopposed. The NM Cattle Growers Association and others sought to derail the public hearings by resorting to litigation, a tactic that was soundly rejected by the NM Supreme Court in October. Some ranchers and water associations have criticized the designation as being too broad and may continue to fight it through the state legislature.