By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ALONG THE SAN JUAN RIVER, N.M. (AP) -- Cutting through northwestern New Mexico's high desert, the San Juan River has long been known by anglers around the world for its clear water, big trout and unbelievable vistas.
But from the top of the sandstone cliffs on the river's north side, the change is evident. The water is green and the cobblestones have disappeared thanks to silt washing down from the mesas above.
"It didn't used to be this way," says Andreas Novak, a lifelong fly fisherman who moved to Farmington nearly three decades ago to be close to the world class fishery.
The San Juan has become a $40 million business for the region, but Novak and other anglers are worried that erosion from increased oil and gas activity and low flows mandated by federal officials for endangered species and water users downstream could mean the death of the fishery, if something isn't done.
Supporters of the river have sent a flurry of letters to Gov. Bill Richardson, members of Congress and game officials, asking that the watershed be studied to determine how best to protect the special trout water.
Like the San Juan, hunting and fishing spots across the West are losing their appeal as growing populations and energy development place more demands on the region's natural resources.
Declines in fish, big game and other species have been documented from New Mexico to Wyoming while oil and gas drilling on federal land has more than doubled over the past decade, according to the national coalition Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development.
"You venture onto public lands in the West to get away from the impacts you see in the city and what's happening is the industry zones are coming to the wild country," said Chris Wood, an official with Trout Unlimited.
In northwestern New Mexico, anglers say a tangled web of dirt roads and wells in the San Juan Basin -- one of the largest natural gas fields in the nation -- has resulted in more sediment in the San Juan River.
Not enough water is released from the dam above the fishery to wash away the sediment. With a muddy bottom, fish have nowhere to reproduce and fewer bugs make it through their life cycle, leaving fish with little to eat.
"When I see things happening like this, it just flat doesn't make sense to me," Novak said. "That's when I have to stand up and say 'Hey, is anybody listening, is anybody looking? Can't we do something about this?"
Part of the problem is that a handful of state and federal agencies have a stake in the watershed. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation manages the river's flows, the Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the endangered species downstream, the Bureau of Land Management controls the surrounding mesas and the state Game and Fish Department deals with the trout.
Oscar Simpson, a former game commissioner and member of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, accuses game officials of "sticking their heads in the sand" to avoid a confrontation with federal officials.
He said the state needs to push water managers to develop strategic flows for the fishery and land managers to ensure that energy companies limit soil disturbance and erosion.
"If we don't have a multiple approach ... this world class fishery will be lost within a few short years," Simpson said.
It's not that simple.
Federal officials say each agency is bound by its own regulations and legal requirements.
"It's one of those things, for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction," said Pat Page, a Bureau of Reclamation official.
Page said his office has tried to be flexible in releasing water, but that will likely end as more downstream users develop their water rights and pressures mount on endangered species in the river.
As for energy development, the BLM said it's always looking for ways to minimize runoff but the area along the San Juan is highly erosive. The sandstone is steep and bare in most spots, said Steve Henke, manager of the BLM's Farmington office.
"We do transport considerable sediment when we get the high-intensity, short-duration thunderstorms, but that's very much a natural event in an arid environment," he said.
Some anglers complain that the agencies are writing off the San Juan's problems as complexities of nature, but they say word is spreading that the fishery isn't what it used to be.
The governor took his own look during a float trip last fall. He has since pledged to seek $400,000 in state funds for restoration work.
Novak said up until now, the state has provided only "a Band-Aid to a problem where major surgery is required." The state has done three habitat improvement projects in recent years only to have them silted in by last summer's monsoons, he said.
Anglers estimate that two-thirds of the four-mile stretch of quality water have become silt-laden, forcing the trout into a small area just below the dam.
Assistant Game and Fish director Bob Jenks said the department has no specific plans if it does get the funding but possibilities include more habitat improvements, bank stabilization and methods for keeping sediment out of the river.
Jenks said the first part of the governor's initiative is already done -- the release of about 500 trout in a section of river popular with guides.
"We've been working on improving habitat within the river itself for the last couple of years and we intend to continue doing that but we also want to work with the folks up there so we can get more specific in terms of what their views are and what we can do," Jenks said.
Novak said there are still places where big trout can be found, but he wants to make sure future generations can experience the San Juan as he first did.
"I know it's complicated because of all of the water legislation and the legal stuff that's involved, but hey let's take a look at it," he said. "The state of New Mexico deserves better. The residents of New Mexico and all of those that come here from thousands of miles away, they deserve better."
On the Net:
New Mexico Game and Fish Department: http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/
Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development: http://www.sportsmen4responsibleenergy.org/
Trout Unlimited: http://www.tu.org/