Outstanding Waters designation is the highest level of water quality protection in the Clean Water Act and in the New Mexico Surface Water Quality Standards.
The federal Clean Water Act’s antidegradation policy –– and, specifically its ONRW provisions –– allows for the protection of a State’s highest quality, most valued surface waters in perpetuity. New Mexico water quality standards also recognize ONRW protection as a key component of the State’s antidegradation policy, and afford maximum water quality protection to ONRWs.
Importantly, the state standards provide that “no degradation shall be allowed” within a designated ONRW, but allow certain pre-existing and traditional land-use activities, such as grazing and acequia operations, to continue. In a sense, the ONRW tool provides a snapshot in time as a baseline for preserving water quality.
One way to obtain an Outstanding Waters designation, a nominating petition, outlining the exceptional attributes of the water must be filed with the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission.
Another opportunity for ONRW designation is through a process call the “Triennial Review.” This multi-year process, undertaken by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), as required by the federal Clean Water Act, could include new proposed ONRWs. In Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s recent Climate Change Task Force report, ONRWs are cited as an important tool for climate resiliency.
The Triennial Review is expected to begin a public process in 2020 and completed in 2021. Should the NMED or any other party announce new proposed ONRW designations as part of the Triennial Review, those proposals will be included here.
Once a water body (river, stream, lake, or wetland) is designated as an Outstanding Water, no new or increased pollution is allowed in that water. Current uses may continue, but if a new proposal is put forth that may affect the designated water, it must be done in a way that will not increase pollution.