Conservation Restoration

Agua es Vida: The fight to protect the Pecos River goes to Congress

Northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountain range holds incredible wealth: water, wildlife, forests, Rio Grande cutthroat trout, endangered species like the Mexican Spotted Owl, sacred Indigenous sites, as well as millions of metric tons of gold, silver, zinc, copper, and lead. The Pecos River drains the southernmost portion of the range, shaping its landscapes and its people since time immemorial. In that time, the river has been a multifaceted giver of life, a home for fish and wildlife, the lifeblood of agriculture and recreation and, unfortunately, a lodestone for industrial mining.

Nearly a century ago, the Pecos flowed near the Terrero Mine and its Molino milling site, about an hour’s drive east of Santa Fe. Although it operated for fewer than 20 years in the early 1900s, the mine left a legacy of pollution that is still being cleaned up at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars. In the 1990s, acidic stormwater runoff from roads graveled by mine tailings flowed into the Pecos, killing 90,000 trout at Lisboa Springs Fish Hatchery and contaminating residential and agricultural water in downstream communities.

The Pecos is under threat of mining again. Comexico, LLC, an American subsidiary of the Australian mining company New World Resources, has applied for exploratory mining permits near the remote Thompson Peak area in the Santa Fe National Forest. The permit for exploratory drilling has been on hold due to a lack of forest staff capacity in the wake of last year’s catastrophic Hermit’s Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire. The fire, the largest in New Mexico’s history, burned dangerously close to the Pecos headwaters. It seems the Pecos can’t catch a break from the threat of the next disaster.

Not surprisingly, protecting the Pecos from future mining has diverse and broad appeal. The Stop Terrero Mine Coalition, a group of regional water advocates, tribal leaders, environmentalists, anglers, and local government officials is committed to the long-term protection of the river and its headwater streams. They are joined in their opposition to new mining in the region by tribal leaders, Governor Lujan Grisham, and all five members of New Mexico’s Congressional delegation.

Federal legislation to protect the headwaters of the Pecos River from mining impacts was just reintroduced in the 118th Congress by New Mexico Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, and Representatives Teresa Leger Fernández and Melanie Stansbury. The Pecos Watershed Protection Act (S.3033, H.R.5628) would permanently protect the watershed from new mining claims and expand the Pecos Wilderness. The legislation is sponsored by Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, and Representatives Teresa Leger Fernández and Melanie Stansbury would permanently protect the watershed from new mining claims and expand the southernmost portion of the Pecos Wilderness. Passage of the legislation is a priority for Trout Unlimited.

Additionally, TU and local advocates are pursuing a 20-year administrative mineral withdrawal to restrict new mining claim development in the short-term while Congress considers more permanent protections. The administrative withdrawal has the same footprint as the legislation – 166,500 acres of public lands managed by the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management– and the proposal’s fate lies squarely in the hands of the Biden administration, including Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

In addition to protecting downstream water supplies and treasured fishing spots along the mainstem Pecos, these legislative and administrative actions will protect native trout habitat in Pecos tributaries like Willow Creek, Wild Horse Creek, and Doctor Creek. Local TU chapters have raised funds to help pay for the improvement of a fish barrier on Willow Creek and will soon support the state’s efforts to return the rare Pecos strain of Rio Grande cutthroats to the stream.

According to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the upper Pecos watershed is the state’s second most popular trout fishery, hosting more than one million angler days each year. Fly or lure, small creeks to larger streams, wild brown and rainbow and native cutthroat trout – the Pecos watershed offers something for everyone.

You can support our efforts to protect clean water and native trout populations in the headwaters of New Mexico’s Pecos River in two simple ways. First, by adding your name to this petition supporting a 20-year prohibition on new mining claims in the watershed. Second, by thanking New Mexico’s Congressional delegation for its work to pass federal legislation to protect the Pecos River headwaters.

In the Pecos, agua es vida. Trout Unlimited is committed to ensuring that clean water continues to sustain local communities and the wild and native trout we cherish for generations to come.