Bill would prohibit new mining in Pecos watershed

By:  Theresa Davis

A bill that would withdraw all federally-managed minerals in the Pecos watershed from future leasing or sales was introduced by U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich this week.

“We all have different relationships with this river, but whether you’re a fisherman or farmer or outdoor recreationist, people understand this river is the thing that ties them all together,” the New Mexico Democrat told the Journal. “People want to see that protected to the greatest extent possible, and I think this legislation is the most straightforward way to do that.”

The Pecos Watershed Protection Act bill would not affect existing mining activities, including a proposal by Australia-based Comexico for an exploratory drilling project on U.S. Forest Service land near Tererro. Comexico’s parent company, New World Resources, signed agreements last spring to acquire rights to 20 federal mining claims.

Santa Fe National Forest officials are reviewing the proposal. The agency cannot prohibit mining activity on federal lands.

“If people do have valid existing rights to do any sort of mining activities in this watershed, we’re going to hold them accountable, so they’re not impairing other people’s rights to clean water, rights to irrigate and recreate,” Heinrich said.

The region had a $28 million cleanup in the 1990s after a snowmelt sent heavy metals from the old Tererro mine into the Pecos River. The spill killed thousands of fish at a downstream hatchery.

The bill is supported by groups such as the Upper Pecos Watershed Association. Lela McFerrin, the association’s vice president, said mining could harm outdoor recreation in the area.

“Fishing, camping and hiking is what brings people up here,” McFerrin said. “The Pecos is also the source of acequia waterflow for agriculture, our second biggest industry in Pecos, so it’s very important to keep this river clean. We don’t want development of hardrock mining in our pristine watershed.”

The group has also petitioned the state to declare the Upper Pecos and its tributaries as Outstanding National Resource Waters. That designation would come with high water quality standards and development restrictions.

Similar legislation withdrawing federal lands from new mining has been used in several western states, including on land near the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Heinrich’s bill has been referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.