By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ABIQUIU, N.M. (AP) -- Thousands of miles of New Mexico rivers and streams would gain special protection under the federal Clean Water Act as part of a proposal being pushed by Gov. Bill Richardson and environmentalists. But ranchers worry the plan is a backdoor effort to stop grazing on public land.
State environment officials have spent more than two years refining a proposal to designate rivers and streams in wilderness areas across the state as so-called "outstanding national resource waters" to protect them from degradation.
Other Western states have used the designation to protect fresh water resources, but this marks the first time New Mexico has embarked on such a broad effort to protect headwaters.
"One of our biggest challenges in New Mexico is figuring out how to protect and maintain our water resources in a way that is sustainable and economically supportable, and these are not easy decisions to make," Marcy Leavitt, head of the New Mexico Environment Department's Water and Wastewater Division, told a group of landowners at a recent public meeting in Abiquiu.
Like other states, Leavitt said New Mexico is dealing with persistent drought, hotter temperatures and a booming population -- all drastically impacting fresh water supplies.
New Mexico's largest cities are switching to surface water as ground water resources dwindle. Much of that includes treated wastewater that's pumped into rivers by communities upstream.
The headwaters offer the last remaining infusion of fresh water into the system, meaning their protection is vital to ensure future water quality, Leavitt said.
No one disputes the need to protect New Mexico's water, but ranchers see the plan to designate waterways across such a broad swath of wilderness -- far from pollution and cities -- as another ploy by environmentalists in a decades-long battle to halt grazing on national forest lands.
"This whole thing with the Clean Water Act, it's just a front. They want our land, they want our water, period," said Carlos Salazar of the Northern New Mexico Stockman's Association.
The designation would allow existing activities, including grazing, to continue in wilderness areas provided landowners follow practices to ensure water quality remains high.
But ranchers say the proposal is ambiguous and would establish new layers of bureaucracy that would harm New Mexico's rural economy.
"People are very worried," said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association. "Given that the wilderness areas are already protected from everything but grazing and recreational activities, what are we going to protect it from?"
The designation has been used only twice in New Mexico -- for the Rio Santa Barbara and for rivers within the Valle Vidal. Such designations usually come after much analysis of water quality and potential socio-economic impacts.
Critics say little study has been done on the many waterways that would be covered and neither the Environment Department nor the U.S. Forest Service -- which oversees wilderness areas -- has the staff or funding necessary for adequate enforcement.
The Forest Service's Southwest regional office, livestock groups and officials from some New Mexico counties have said they do not support a blanket designation.
"A forest-by-forest, watershed-by-watershed or, best of all, a segment-by-segment analysis and designation of streams would allow for the most meaningful and fully supported designation of the appropriate waters," the Forest Service said in comments submitted to the state.
Forest Service officials are concerned the designation could affect firefighting efforts, forest restoration projects, mining claims, grazing permits and rural communities.
While the current proposal would apply to headwaters in wilderness areas, ranchers said more allotments could be affected because the Richardson administration and environmentalists have indicted they will pursue an expanded designation to include roadless areas.
Ernie Torres, whose family raises cattle in northern New Mexico, said ranchers already deal with pressure from environmentalists, endangered species concerns, drought, rising costs and range damage from wildlife.
"This is going to be the last nail in the coffin," he said.
The Environment Department is drafting a final version of the proposal for consideration by the state Water Quality Control Commission.
If approved, Abiquiu rancher Virgil Trujillo said cattlemen won't have many options.
"Our history is the history of take and take some more, and what hurts is government is not accountable," he said. "There are a thousand rules of how they're going to nail the rancher, but you try to take the government to court and you'll die of old age or stress."
Cowan said such a broad designation eventually could affect urban areas.
"Can subdivisions exist or grow? And what kind of city expansion can we do if a very small special interest group gains control over water?" she said. "These people have a very specific agenda and we're just a small part of it."
Environmentalists argue they're protecting water quality amid climate change and growing demand.
"A lot of people just don't like having somebody tell them what they can or can't do, but they're using public lands for these activities and I think they ought to accept the fact that the public has a right, as well as they do, to make sure that all of the land, for all purposes, is kept as good as possible," said Michael Jensen of Amigos Bravos.
Despite the cool reception state officials have received at public meetings in rural New Mexico, Leavitt has tried to reassure ranchers and others that the designation won't affect existing activities if water quality is maintained.
She said those who think this is an effort to push them off public land should read the proposal.
"The existing proposal does a good job of balancing water quality protection with also protecting traditional land uses, and I think we will make any clarifications necessary to make sure people really understand that's what we're doing," she said.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.