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Associated Press 

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — More than 200 miles of the Pecos River, its tributaries and other parts of the upper reaches of the northern New Mexico watershed would be protected from future degradation under a petition being considered by state regulators.

A coalition of farmers, ranchers, environmentalists and local officials filed the petition last month, seeking an "Outstanding National Resource Waters" designation for the river, nearby streams and surrounding wetlands. The Water Quality Control Commission agreed Tuesday to consider the request and set a public hearing for November.

State officials have described such a designation as the highest level of protection against degradation for a body of water under New Mexico's water quality standards. There are a number of streams within wilderness and forested areas in the state that are classified as outstanding waters.

The move in the Upper Pecos Valley comes as concerns simmer over a proposal that would clear the way for exploratory drilling by a mining company.

Those behind the petition say the Pecos watershed supports agriculture as well as an economy that draws millions of dollars each year from hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

They also point to the cultural significance of the area, saying that since the mid-16th century people there have depended on the Pecos River to feed traditional irrigation systems called acequias to grow crops and raise livestock. Many of the canals are still used today.

For eight generations, Ralph Vigil's family has lived in the Pecos area. An organic farmer and a member of the state acequia association, Vigil is worried about future development — specifically mining — in the surrounding mountains and the effects on the landscape and water quality.

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Past mining and milling in the Upper Pecos from the 1880s to the 1930s contaminated soil and water and required cleanup. While there are lingering questions among some residents about health problems that followed, Vigil said the community also has concerns that another mining company will come in, make a mess and leave it for taxpayers to clean up.

"Right now we're trying to create something better in our community — agri-tourism, eco-tourism, outdoor recreation," he said. "We need to preserve those qualities within our watershed in order to create that economic opportunity. I think that is way more sustainable and long-lasting than mining will ever be."

If the water that the community depends on is contaminated, then the community is going to suffer, he said.

Comexico LLC, a subsidiary of Australian-based New World Cobalt, has proposed exploratory drilling on previously identified mineral deposits north of Pecos. If approved, the company would explore the extent of the ore and market the prospects to other investors or companies for development.

The plan calls for using existing roads and drill sites to sink up to 30 core holes on a few acres.

The U.S. Forest Service and state energy and mineral officials are reviewing the proposal.

Federal mining regulations and laws allow for the exploration and development on national forest lands. But officials have said that Comexico would have to modify its plans to mitigate any effects on cultural resources important to Native American tribes and species such as the Mexican spotted owl.

If the state were to approve the outstanding waters designation, any new activities that degrade water quality would be prohibited.

The petition is backed by the New Mexico Acequia Association, San Miguel County, the village of Pecos, the Upper Pecos Watershed Association and Vigil's company, Molino de la Isla Organics.