Clean Water in New Mexico

The NM Water Advocates focuses on catalyzing transformative water governance so we can best manage our shrinking water supplies in the Rio Grande and across New Mexico. These supply reductions are caused primarily by our warming climate, lessening spring runoff from declining mountain winter snow packs upstream. Such changes are accompanied by increasing annual volumes of water evaporating into our warming air from these snow packs and rivers, lakes, soils, and vegetation. Climate warming and water supply reductions also produce a range of subsequent adverse effects on the quality of our surface waters, which are forecast to impact both human and environmental health negatively. These effects also require our increased focus and concern.

There is an old saying, “The solution to pollution is dilution.” Fortunately, that timeworn saying has rarely been heard since federal and state regulatory efforts starting in the 1960s and intensifying in 1972 when Congress passed what has become called the Clean Water Act (CWA). Over the subsequent decades, the CWA now includes various congressional amendments and other changes by the courts. In total, the CWA and its associated regulations have produced vast improvements to the overall quality of our nation’s and state’s surface waters. Yet, New Mexico’s rivers, lakes, wetlands, and surface waters elsewhere still often continue to have water quality impairments limiting individual potential uses due to various pollutants that remain in those waters. For example, the Rio Grande flowing past Albuquerque is listed by the State as having limited recreation uses (that is, full or partial body contact) due to the recurring elevated concentrations of fecal coliform bacteria. So, with reductions in the supply of water to New Mexico and elsewhere, there is less potential for diluting any remaining polluting contaminants. The water is no longer a meaningful contributing solution to reducing these pollutants below potentially harmful concentrations. What does that mean?

First, for those wanting to understand more about the federal CWA, how it started, and how some aspects have changed over the decades, an initial source of explanation is available in an issue paper here. That issue description also highlights that the NM Constitution requires the legislature to provide for control of pollution and to protect “the state’s beautiful and healthful environment … of fundamental importance to the public interest, health, safety and the general welfare.” In 1967, the NM Water Quality Act (NMWQA) gave authority to its Water Quality Control Commission to define and adopt water quality standards and direct programs consistent with federal requirements under the CWA and other federal water laws and regulations. In turn, the NM Environmental Department’s Statewide Water Quality Management Plan and Continuing Planning Process summarizes the water quality management system in the state and the roles of the major participants required by the CWA, its subsequent amendments, regulations, and the NMWQA.

How does climate warming and water supply changes adversely affect water quality, human health, and aquatic life in our lakes, rivers, and streams? One way is that warming water temperatures improve conditions for harmful algal blooms to grow in water. The toxicants such algal masses often produce and release into the water have caused death to exposed humans and aquatic life. Similarly, warmer water conditions can contribute to greater persistence and sometimes population growth for some pathogens with increasing potential for adverse effects on human, wildlife, and aquatic populations. Along with increasing drought-like conditions, climate warming also produces intense short-term rainstorms. Where there have been marked vegetation losses due to wildfires, such storms can lead to washing hazardous metals and other toxins from the burnt watershed downstream into, for example, the Rio Grande. Such storms are also projected to cause some, particularly smaller, wastewater treatment facilities to overflow and significantly increase the discharge of water pollutants to rivers and lakes. Currently, considerable research is underway to assess how climate warming can potentially adversely affect water quality and ways to best protect our nation’s and state’s vital water resources from such impacts.

As we progress with developing sustainable water management plans for the Rio Grande and across New Mexico, we watershed citizens responsible for developing these plans must focus on the risks accompanying climate warming—not only related to maintaining sustainable water supplies for the critical users and uses identified but also that these supplies continue to maintain the water qualities required for those critical needs. Read up on the Clean Water Act and stay tuned for more on this topic from the Water Advocates in 2024.

Dr. Mike Marcus is a member of the Water Advocates Board of Directors, representing Technical Specialty Interests. Since 1970, he has worked or consulted with the electric power industry, mining companies, and various federal and state agencies, including the USEPA, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, Corps of Engineers, and NM Interstate Stream Commission. His work in New Mexico for over 20 years before his retirement focused on defining potential past water quality impacts and current habitat management needs for endangered species along the middle Rio Grande, riparian habitat restoration, and construction of new wetland habitats.

Leave a Comment