The New Mexico Environment Department and conservation groups presented a compromise Tuesday to state regulators who are considering a proposal that would protect hundreds of miles of headwater streams, more than two dozen lakes and numerous wetlands in federal wilderness areas around New Mexico.
The department first petitioned the Water Quality Control Commission to designate headwaters in a dozen federal wilderness areas around the state as outstanding water sources, which would protect streams, lakes and wetlands by prohibiting any activities that would degrade water quality.
Under the compromise, temporary degradation of water quality would be allowed only in limited circumstances, such as during restoration or maintenance projects.
Supporters said the compromise better defines protections for outstanding waters and keeps in place the state's strict anti-degradation policy. But it immediately drew criticism from a ranchers' group that has been fighting the department's effort to designate the waterways as "outstanding national resources waters."
Dan Dolan, an attorney representing the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, said suggesting changes to the proposal during the hearing process does not give ranchers or others who are concerned enough time to review and present their cases.
"We have the agency changing its proposal to be something that it never was in the first place and that the public never got notice of," he said. "It's just another example of an environmental agency that does not really care what the public's input is."
State officials said they have tried to address the public's concerns and that development of the initial proposal included extensive public participation.
The hearing before the commission in Santa Fe is a continuation of a proceeding that started last month. Some groups involved in the case have been negotiating changes to the proposal's language over the last three weeks, but the ranchers contend that they were left out.
The hearing was scheduled to last through Friday. It will be up to the commission to approve, modify or reject the proposal. It could be December before the commission makes a final decision in the case.
"The cattle growers are just slowing the process down and stalling it as much as they can," said Bryan Bird of WildEarth Guardians, one of the groups that negotiated the compromise. "The bottom line is that a handful of public lands ranchers are holding the entire state's clean water hostage. I think that's inappropriate."
Pointing to citizens' signatures and support from municipalities and sportsmen's groups, Bird said protecting New Mexico's headwaters will help the state prepare for growing pressure on its limited water resources.
The Richardson administration began pushing an outstanding waters designation in 2008.
After dozens of public meetings, the environment department changed its proposal a few times to address the concerns of ranchers, water associations and others. It wasn't until May that the state presented its final petition to the commission.