May 2017

OP-ED / The President’s Budget and Executive Order Rolling Back the Clean Water Rule

What They Mean for New Mexico


Rachel Conn



Water is precious in New Mexico. Without it, our way of life is threatened and our communities suffer.


On Feb. 28, 2017 President Trump signed an executive order rolling back the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water Rule, also known as the Waters of the U.S. Rule. This order reverses years of work to ensure that New Mexicans have clean water needed for drinking, irrigating and recreating. The order directs the EPA’s director, Scott Pruitt, to initiate the lengthy legal process of rescinding and rewriting the rule. This could take years. This order and the president’s proposed budget foreshadow a grim future for water quality across the state.


The president’s budget would cut a third of the EPA’s funding. The cuts include getting rid of the agency’s nonpoint source water pollution program. In New Mexico, this would gut $1.3 million used by the state Environment Department’s Surface Water Quality Bureau to implement watershed protection programs. It would also eliminate hundreds of thousands of dollars for on-the-ground restoration projects such as a project that addresses E.coli pollution on the Río Fernando de Taos; a project in the Valles Caldera to plant more than 33,000 riparian plants to decrease turbidity and temperature on Jaramillo Creek; projects on the Río Cebolla to reduce sediment loading; and a $200,000 project to address pollution in the Pecos River.


Overview of the Clean Water Rule  

·        The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, has guided the transition from rivers that literally caught on fire to healthy watersheds where species like the bald eagle and river otter once again thrive.

·        In response to confusion after Supreme Court rulings in 2001 and 2006, the Rule was developed by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clarify what waters are protected by the Clean Water Act. The Rule clarifies that some of the rivers, streams and wetlands that fell through the cracks are indeed protected.

·        The Rule was finalized in August 2015, and then on Oct. 9, 2015 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit stayed the Rule nationwide, pending further action of the court.

·        The Rule restores prior protections that once existed for a variety of water bodies, from tributaries to traditionally navigable waters. In New Mexico, traditional navigable waters are only the mainstems of five river systems—the Río Grande, Canadian, Pecos, Gila and San Juan.

·        The Rule reduces permitting delays.


Why the Rule Is Important to New Mexico

·        Tributary streams such as the Santa Fe River, Río Hondo, Gallinas, Red River and Río Pueblo provide water for acequias, wildlife and recreation. These waters need protection from unregulated dumping and pollution.

·        Many (93.6 percent) New Mexico tributaries are ephemeral or intermittent. They flow into the state’s main river systems, provide wildlife habitat, and are used for livestock watering and irrigation. The Rule restores Clean Water Act protection to many of these waters. At least 280,000 people in New Mexico receive drinking water from sources that rely at least in part on ephemeral or intermittent tributaries.

·        20 percent of the state’s vertebrate wildlife depend upon ephemeral and intermittent waters.

·        New Mexico is a non-delegated state; meaning that the EPA administers and issues National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits in New Mexico. Unlike many other states, New Mexico does not have a state program in place to control surface water discharges into state waters.

·        The Act requires wastewater and industrial facilities to clean water before being discharged into rivers.


Rachel Conn is projects director for the statewide water conservation organization Amigos Bravos.




Río Rancho Aquifer Project

A $5.6-million project to inject millions of gallons of recycled water into an aquifer will be operating soon. The advanced treatment facility in Río Rancho—the first of its kind in New Mexico—includes a two-million-gallon concrete tank. Advanced Oxidation Treatment, a process that cleans biologically toxic or non-biodegradable materials such as pesticides, petroleum constituents and volatile organic compounds in wastewater, uses ozone, hydrogen peroxide and/or ultra-violet light. The contaminants are converted to a large extent into stable inorganic compounds such as water, carbon dioxide and salts.


The facility will be able to upgrade up to one million gallons per day to drinking standards. The water will then be pumped into streams, used for sewage treatment or injected into the city’s aquifer, to be later retrieved by nearby active wells.


Río Rancho funded the project through a New Mexico Finance Authority Water Trust Board loan and grant funding.


Fracking Scorecard Evaluates NM’s Oil and Gas Producers

“Disclosing the Facts,” a fracking scorecard on the environmental record of New Mexico’s top 10 oil and gas producers, indicated that, despite improvements, most of the companies that use hydraulic fracturing fared poorly. The annual report ranked the companies on their public disclosure of use of toxic chemicals, water consumption, water quality, waste management practices, air emissions and other impacts on communities and the environment.


Eight producers received low or failing scores. Houston-based Apache Corp. had the highest improvement, scoring 29 points out of a possible 43—up 20 points. That was because the company reduced its toxic chemical use by 60 percent, and provided “a venue for conversations concerning risks, management practices and disclosures associated with fracking operations and a forum for industry experts to review draft practices and indicators.”


The report was released at the end of 2016 by the corporate responsibility group As You Sow and green investment firms Boston Common Asset Management and Investor Environmental Health Network. The EPA released a study at the same time, which highlighted fracking’s potential for groundwater contamination.




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