NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – There’s growing momentum behind an effort to stop future mining across some of northern New Mexico. Three of the state’s federal lawmakers are eyeing new protections for a critical watershed along the Pecos River.

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Keeping the Santa Fe National Forest—and lands inside the Pecos River Watershed—pristine was part of the discussion in Washington, D.C. last week, with U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) telling the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about the Pecos River Watershed.

“The Pecos Valley is home to a diverse community of farmers, ranchers, hunters, anglers, and business owners who are united by their reliance on the Pecos River and the expansive watersheds that feed that river,” Heinrich said.

However, those communities have also had to reckon with New Mexico’s mining past. “In 1991, a spill of toxic waste from an abandoned mine killed tens of thousands of fish, primarily trout, in the river for more than 11 miles; and it took decades and millions of dollars to clean up that mess,” Heinrich said, “The last thing this area needs is new mines that would pose a threat to the Pecos River itself.”

It’s that sentiment now driving Heinrich, fellow U.S. Senator Ben Ray Lujan (D-New Mexico), and Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-New Mexico) to push once more for the Pecos Watershed Protection Act.

The bill would withdraw mineral rights from certain federal lands within that watershed which would mean no new mining operations there. “There are many, many places where new mining can be done safely and responsibly and with strong local support. This watershed just isn’t one of them,” Heinrich says.

Some of that local support comes from Santa Fe city councilors, as the city gets much of its water from nearby areas. “We also want to look at long-term fixes. We definitely understand that withdrawing minerals is a business. But we also want to ensure that cultural preservation is a way of life,” said Michael Garcia, Santa Fe City Councilor, who is sponsoring a resolution to support the efforts on Capitol Hill.

“I think preserving a way of life is much more important than the future business of mineral extraction,” Garcia said.

That bill has yet to go to a full Senate vote. State and federal agencies are continuing to evaluate at least one proposed ‘exploratory’ mine project in the Pecos and Las Vegas Forest districts called the ‘Tererro Mine,’ but no final decision has been made.

“It is the US Forest Service that is conducting the Environmental Assessment on this project area. Once the USFS releases its findings, EMNRD’s Mining and Minerals Division will complete a technical review and schedule a public hearing on the project. However, we have not been given a timeline as to when the USFS will complete its work,” said Sidney Hill, public information officer for the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD).

A spokesperson for Senator Heinrich’s Office said it’s this continued interest in mining there that is driving this push: “Senator Heinrich and leaders in both Santa Fe County and San Miguel County are unified in their opposition to the Terrero Mine Project because of the detrimental impacts this project would have on water resources in the region that the communities of the Pecos area rely on.”