Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New rule under fire from N.M. Cattle Growers Association

The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association filed a motion Friday with a state water-quality board to stop a new rule protecting headwater streams in designated national forest wilderness areas, even though ranchers are exempt from the regulation.

The association says the rule is another avenue through which environmental groups can sue the U.S. Forest Service over grazing on public forest lands in New Mexico.

Environmental advocates with WildEarth Guardians say the rule designating 199 perennial headwater streams as Outstanding National Resource Waters is a hard-won, common-sense regulation to protect stream quality. The rule was approved by the state Water Quality Control Commission Dec. 14 in a 7-3 vote.

The motion asks the commission to review the designation with an eye toward discarding parts, or all, of it.

The commission's makeup is likely to change under newly elected Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, and that will affect decisions on the rule, which was two years in the making. Of the 14 members on the board, 10 are appointed by Cabinet secretaries, such as the head of the state Environment Department, and four are appointed directly by the governor.

The headwaters petition was filed in February by the state Environment Department, the state Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources, and the state Department of Game and Fish. The final rule exempts existing grazing permittees and also exempts acequias. The commission declined to expand the scope of the petition to include other streams in roadless areas.

The designation protects 700 miles of streams, 29 lakes and 6,000 acres of wetlands in federal wilderness areas in New Mexico. "The Outstanding Waters rule is a common-sense approach to protecting water and makes special provisions for existing uses. I simply see no basis for reversing it," said Bryan Bird of WildEarth Guardians. "The state bent over backwards to give a special exemption to cattle growers."

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, said the rule doesn't really protect grazing permittees.

"The rule puts the onus for compliance on the U.S. Forest Service. This creates another 'cause of action' environmental groups can use to sue the Forest Service for noncompliance."

Bird said that "when the Forest Service goes to review a grazing permit that is on an allotment with a designated ONRW stream, then the Forest Service will have to make sure there are no changes that would degrade the water."

The Cattle Growers Association wants the Water Quality Control Commission to review the rule and consider designating smaller watersheds one at a time. The motion notes the association did not protest when an outstanding waters designation was sought for the Valle Vidal and the Rio Santa Barbara.

"Local people were not unhappy or upset, so we stayed out of it," Cowan said. "If this was done basin-by-basin or wilderness-by-wilderness so those people most impacted could really participate, we wouldn't be having this fight," she said.

The association continues to maintain there's a lack of scientific evidence to prove all 199 stream systems in the petition meet criteria for outstanding waters protection.

WildEarth Guardians, the Environment Department and other parties have two weeks to respond to the motion. The commission will consider the motion at its next meeting.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com.

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