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Clean water law debated

New Mexico tribe advocates revising the federal measure, saying Supreme Court rulings have muddied necessary protections.

September 30, 2007|Susan Montoya Bryan | Associated Press

sandia pueblo, n.m. -- The Rio Grande used to be more than just a shallow sliver cutting its way through sand bars on this pueblo's western edge, and the dry stream beds that descend from the mountains on the eastern front once channeled summer runoff strong enough to move granite boulders.

"I mean, you could hear those boulders come tumbling down. We would get up in the middle of the night just to watch them come through," Sandia Pueblo Gov. Victor Montoya said.

Things have changed, but the pueblo's reverence for the water remains.

The pueblo has joined state officials, sportsmen and conservationists from across the country who are throwing their support behind federal legislation that aims to clear up what is protected by the Clean Water Act.

"It's very important, not just to us Native Americans, but to everybody," Montoya said. "Without water, where are we? We wouldn't be around."

Supporters of the Clean Water Restoration Act of 2007 say the original law has been muddied by a pair of split Supreme Court decisions that narrowed the definition of waters that are eligible for protection.

Guidelines issued this summer by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers also had made it harder to protect intermittent streams and wetlands unless they were connected to traditional waterways.

The implications of how the Clean Water Act is interpreted stretch far beyond Sandia Pueblo to the rest of the arid West.

"All of the Southwestern states have this situation where something close to 80%, 90% of their surface waters are these ephemeral and intermittent streams," said Jan Goldman-Carter, wetlands and water resources counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, which supports the restoration act.

Conservationists contend that unless Congress acts, these waters could be vulnerable.

Although no one is against clean water, developers, farmers and business groups see the legislation as an expansion of federal power and question whether the EPA would have the funds to enforce the law if more waters fell under federal protection.

They are concerned that the legislation would become a vehicle for protecting every wet area in the country, possibly even ditches and groundwater.

Critics also point to Supreme Court decisions that narrow the definition of protected water to navigable waterways and bodies of water that are linked to such waterways.

"When you codify law contrary to a Supreme Court decision, it's a double-edge sword," said Howard Hutchinson, executive director of the Coalition of Arizona/New Mexico Counties and a member of the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission. "Sometimes you correct laws that are well off their mark and other times you're taking some very good deliberations and turning them on their head."

Denise Fort, a law professor at the University of New Mexico, said much had changed since the Clean Water Act was first passed and that lawmakers who drafted the legislation were thinking more about protecting waterways like the Potomac and Hudson rivers, not intermittent streams or playas in the West.

"In terms of Western environments, there are several problems with several places where the Clean Water Act isn't good enough for what we are trying to do and for what we need to do," she said.

The legislation has the backing of Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), but the rest of the state's delegation has yet to take a position.

Sandia Pueblo is the first New Mexico tribe to publicly back the legislation, but Montoya said he didn't take a stance on the matter to be recognized as a leader.

"We want to protect what we can for our future generations and if we have to be in the forefront, then that's where we will be," he said.

His goal: "Hopefully, we can restore this and leave something that is beautiful and clean for our grandchildren."

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