New Mexico
Environment Department

Contact Information:
(505) 827-2855 MAIN // 1-800-219-6157 (toll free)
Environmental Emergencies:
505-827-9329 (24 hrs)

Surface Water Quality

Outstanding National Resource Waters


Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRWs) are streams, lakes and wetlands that receive special protection against degradation under the State of New Mexico’s Standards for  Interstate and Intrastate Surface Waters (Water Quality Standards) and the federal Clean Water Act.

An ONRW designation is the highest level of protection against degradation that can be afforded for a waterbody  under the State of New Mexico’s Water Quality Standards.

For further information, contact  Jennifer Fullam, Water Quality Standards Coordinator.

What Waterbodies are Eligible for an ONRW Designation?
Waters eligible for ONRW designation include waters that are part of a national or state park, wildlife refuge or wilderness areas, special trout waters, waters with exceptional recreational or ecological significance, and high quality waters that have not been significantly modified by human activities.
How Can an ONRW be Designated?
An ONRW is proposed for designation by filing a petition with the Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) in accordance with the requirements under NMAC.

The petition must set forth sufficient justification for the proposed designation.

As with any change to the State’s Water Quality Standards, public notice of the petition must be provided and a public hearing held before the WQCC. Following the public hearing, the WQCC makes a decision on the petition on whether or not the ONRW status will be granted.

Who Can Nominate an ONRW for Designation?
Any person may nominate a surface water for designation as an ONRW by filing a petition with the Water Quality Control Commission.

There are several steps in this process and consultation with NMED is strongly encouraged.

What Waterbodies Have Already Been Designated?
Some ONRW petitions are taken to the WQCC during a Triennial Review of the State’s Water Quality Standards (WQS) while some have been taken independently outside of the Triennial Review.

The Department maintains a list of all WQS amendments which should be referenced prior to petitioning for a new ONRW. In addition, and in accordance with NMAC, wetlands designated as ONRWs are identified on the Bureau’s EGIS Mapper Application as well as in the Maps and List of Wetlands Within United States Forest Service Wilderness Areas (SWQB 2019).

What Does the ONRW Designation Protect?
New Mexico’s Water Quality Standards establish designated uses for water bodies, set criteria to protect those uses, and establish provisions to preserve water quality. ONRWs are subject to the same water quality criteria as other waters with the same designated uses; however, ONRWs receive additional protection aimed at preserving water quality.

Degradation of water quality is not allowed in ONRWs except under very limited circumstances.  Where water quality meets or exceeds standards, that higher water quality must be protected.

Are Historic Activities Allowed Once an ONRW is Designated?
Land-use activities in existence at the time an ONRW is designated will not be affected so long as they are:

  • allowed by state or federal law;
  • controlled by best management practices; and
  • do not result in new or increased discharges of contaminants to the ONRW.

Examples of such activities that occur near currently designated ONRWs include recreation, grazing, as well as acequia operation, maintenance and repair.

What Restrictions Are Placed on New Activities in a Designated ONRW?
New land uses or activities can proceed so long as they do not impact the water quality in the designated ONRW.

Point Source Activities

A proposed activity on public or private land that requires a water quality protection permit would be reviewed during the permitting process.

  • Section 404 permits are required for the discharge of dredged or fill material into a waterway or wetland
  • National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits are required for point source discharges, including stormwater runoff from construction sites.

Non-Point Source Activities

If a proposed project on public land has the potential to cause degradation in an ONRW from non-point sources, it would be reviewed by the oversight agency to make sure it can be proceed in a manner consistent with ONRW protection.

Who is the Oversight Agency and What Do They Do?
An oversight agency is a state or federal agency that is responsible for land use or water quality management decisions affecting non-point source discharges where an ONRW is located. Currently, the U.S. Forest Service is the only oversight agency because, at this time, all ONRWs in New Mexico are located on U.S. Forest Service lands.

An oversight agency has the authority to approve pre-existing activities and new activities with appropriate best management practices to protect ONRWs from non-point source pollution.  An oversight agency also approves and implements watershed restoration and maintenance activities that may result in temporary degradation to an ONRW.

An oversight agency must ensure that its permitting decisions, environmental evaluations and other actions contain terms, conditions or requirements that comply with New Mexico’s water quality standards, including the antidegradation protections that apply to ONRWs.

For more information about oversight agencies, see the WQCC’s Guidance for Nonpoint Source Discharges in ONRWs.

Other Resources
Regulations Federal Clean Water Act
New Mexico Water Quality Act NMSA §74-6-1
New Mexico’s Water Quality Standards
References WQMP/CPP
List of all WQS amendments