State to update water pollution plan, factoring in climate change — but not boosting wildfire response

By: - October 13, 2022 4:30 am

The Rio de la Casa runs through the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon burn scar. Pictured on Sept. 13, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

It’s a yearslong process for the state to create a plan to protect water from pollution for federal approval, and the New Mexico Environment Department is prepping its 2024 strategy with a focus on climate change.

New Mexico’s plan, required by the Clean Water Act, aims to prevent and clean up pollution that doesn’t come from a single source, like one factory or plant, but from diffuse origin points in agricultural, residential and urban areas, or heavily mined rural regions. It’s called NPS, or Nonpoint Source pollution. 

Rain and snow pushes the contamination — sediment, toxic chemicals, bacteria — into waters. NPS is harmful to drinking water sources and wildlife, and is the top cause of water quality problems in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

After New Mexico’s deadly wildfire season this summer, both northern and southern New Mexico are dealing with flooding off of burn scars on a daily to weekly basis, and rainflow can push ash, sediment and other contaminants into waters. Wildfires are increasing in frequency and severity, due to one of the worst droughts in centuries as a result of human-caused climate change.

But despite an intention to emphasize climate change in the next iteration, N.M. Environment Department spokesperson Matthew Maez said revisions likely won’t include additional wildfire considerations.

The EPA in 2019 approved the plan in place today, which allocates some funds from the Clean Water Act to restore and protect watersheds damaged by wildfires. Maez said that will remain unchanged in the new version.

The Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance is rolling out a project funded by the Clean Water Act, he pointed out, to identify and alleviate water quality problems following the largest-ever blaze in northern New Mexico. No funds have been specifically allocated through the management plan for damage done by the Black Fire, the second-largest burn in state history.

Climate change heats NM’s streams

The most common water quality problem in New Mexico is excessively high stream temperature, according to the state, as climate change warms up the globe. Maez said addressing heat will be a central part of the updated plan, with revisions prioritizing shade over streams to reduce temperatures in waters when possible.

Maez said NMED is also planning to include proposals focused on water flow improvements, such as reducing erosion to maintain the flow of waters without the aid of precipitation and, during floods, controlling the path the water travels along.

Abe Franklin, program manager for NMED’s Watershed Protection Section, told the Water Quality Control Commission on Tuesday that most of the other changes the department anticipates are superficial, like terminology updates to improve the plan’s comprehensibility for readers.

Maez said today’s plan already folds in a lot of this work, but revisions will more clearly lay out and prioritize climate change resiliency work.

The proposed plan can be added to or changed, he said, as NMED receives input from the public and officials throughout the ongoing drafting process.

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.