The federal government is failing the citizens of the United States on many levels. Rolling back protection of streams and rivers under the “Waters of the United States” provision of the Clean Water Act is just the latest failure.
For New Mexico, this is potentially devastating, stripping Clean Water Act protections from the majority of surface waters in New Mexico. Why? The changes would eliminate most protections for what can be described as “ephemeral” waterways — arroyos, streams and rivers that depend on seasonal rainfall to flow.
As any New Mexican knows who has seen a sudden monsoon rain fill an arroyo or watched a river expand during spring runoff, “ephemeral” is a description that covers many of New Mexico’s waterways. Some 96 percent of the state’s smaller rivers and streams only flow for part of the year.
Polluting them will be easier, which means that when the smaller tributaries are flowing, any pollutants will move to larger waters — the Gila River or the Rio Grande, which provide some 300,000 New Mexicans with drinking water.
Irrigation water supplies also will be threatened. Humans will not be the only victims. Animal habitats also will be at risk, making life more difficult for already stressed populations of fish, birds and wildlife.
All of this, during a boom in oil and gas production that already threatens the environment. Now, developers, oil and gas producers and mine operators can pollute ephemeral waters with little risk to their bottom lines.
Once, the nation had an agreed-upon federal standard to protect air, water and land — regulating big polluters so that the people of this country had an expectation that they could breathe clean air, drink safe water and not worry about contaminants dumped on land around them.
The push to regulate came in the 1970s, under President Richard Nixon, hardly a crazed liberal seeking to ruin businesses. The Clean Water Act passed in 1972 — with origins in a 1940s water pollution law. Its statutory mission is clear: “restoring and maintaining ‘the chemical, physical and biological integrity’ ” of the waters of the United States.
Amended over the years, it is an example of how federal regulation — even if burdensome at times — can improve lives. People old enough to have been alive in the 1970s remember rivers catching on fire, something that no longer happens, thankfully. For now.
New Mexico, according to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Environment Department Secretary James Kenney, is likely to take legal action. The state had spoken out against the new rules, but those concerns went unheard.
The “Waters of the United States” provisions, after all, were an Obama administration initiative after a court decision stripped those protections. A singular Trump administration priority has been undoing whatever President Barack Obama did. Perhaps as important for Trump, one big polluter of surface waters, it turns out, are golf courses — as a golf course developer and owner, the president likely is not adverse to having a license to pollute.
Now, as New Mexico opens a legal front against the rollback of necessary protections, it also will need to hire the people to develop and enforce rules that can protect the waters of New Mexico.
An analysis from New Mexico Wild shows that funding for the energy, environment and public lands-related agencies still have not recovered from the deep cuts and staffing shortages over the last 10 years.
In the Environment Department when adjusted for inflation, general fund dollars decreased 31.69 percent during the Martinez administration, with a vacancy rate of 18.8 percent. Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources faced cuts of 23.68 percent in that time period, with the Oil and Gas Conservation Division — overseers of oil and gas activity — cut by 25.77 percent.
Obviously, the Legislature will have to continue restoring funding to the agencies charged with keeping New Mexicans safe from polluters. Sadly, with the latest edict from the Trump administration, the job of protecting water in New Mexico has become that much more difficult. Even Richard Nixon would be appalled.