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A bill proposed by Sen. Martin Heinrich that would remove more than 150,000 acres of federal land in the Pecos watershed from future mineral leases has garnered opposition from the current presidential administration.
“In New Mexico, while we do not have a great deal of water, we understand the value of water,” Heinrich, D-N.M., said during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee meeting on Wednesday. “The Pecos watershed is one of those special places where the community has come together and said that the river at the heart of this valley is the most important thing we can protect.”
The Pecos Watershed Protection Act would not affect existing mineral rights or leases, including Comexico’s proposal to conduct exploratory drilling for copper, gold and zinc on U.S. Forest Service land near Tererro.
The Trump administration opposes the bill, said Chris French, deputy chief of the National Forest System for the Forest Service.
“It does not support the President’s vision to balance conservation strategies and policies with the need to produce minerals that benefit the American economy,” French said.
The Forest Service cannot deny mineral development on federal land. But the agency can require mining companies to protect wildlife and water.
Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, said domestic mining to reduce dependence on foreign materials is “necessary for U.S. national security.”
Lee made similar comments about a bill to withdraw some federally managed minerals in Colorado from future oil and gas leases.
This type of legislation is the only way for residents to protect fly fishing, river recreation and farming from new mines and mine spills, Heinrich said.
The Tererro region had a $28 million cleanup in the 1990s after a snowmelt sent waste from an old mine into the river, killing fish at a downstream hatchery.
The bill is supported by the New Mexico Acequia Commission and the Upper Pecos Watershed Association.
“Today, no one makes their living in this valley by hardrock mining,” Heinrich said. “Now there is interest from international corporations in changing that, but the people who live in the Pecos Valley don’t want to see new mines along the Pecos River because they’ve experienced firsthand what the devastation of a mine waste spill looks like.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.