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Still Wild and Free, New Mexico’s Gila River is Again Under Threat

In today’s world where most rivers are turned on and off like plumbing works, the Gila in southwestern New Mexico is a rare gem:  one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the United States and the only one in New Mexico. The Gila (pronounced Heela) spotlights what a river can be when it flows...

In today’s world where most rivers are turned on and off like plumbing works, the Gila in southwestern New Mexico is a rare gem:  one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the United States and the only one in New Mexico.

The Gila (pronounced Heela) spotlights what a river can be when it flows not according to human demands for water and energy but rather to Nature’s time-tested rhythms.  Its seasonal highs and lows and gentle meanders across a broad floodplain create a rich mosaic of habitats that are home to a splendorous array of life – including some 280 species of birds.  Among them are the rare western yellow-billed cuckoo, the Mexican spotted owl and perhaps the largest population anywhere of the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, which fancies the gracious Goodding willows that shade the Gila’s banks.

Endangered southwestern willow flycatcher. photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Within minutes of reaching the river on a bright September day I spied two kingfishers skimming the water, on the hunt.  Then, there came a flicker of red – perhaps a vermilion flycatcher.  And what sounded, improbably, like a shrieking seagull, but I had learned the day before was the call of a common black hawk, a stocky bird with a white-banded tail that lives in the riverside woodlands and preys on frogs, small fish and other aquatic creatures.

In the background was the music of the Gila’s riffles, where the river bubbles over cobbles in its bed, adding oxygen to the water.  It was a sensory feast – the sights and sounds of the Gila, alive.

But the river is once again at risk. Over the last twenty-five years, tireless advocates have blocked the construction of two dams.  Today, the threat is a proposed diversion to siphon off 14,000 acre-feet of water per year.  By skimming peaks off of modest floods, and piping the water some 25 miles to an off-channel reservoir, the project would weaken the river’s critical connection to its floodplain and the galleries of cottonwoods and willows that provide the habitat so crucial to the area’s rich diversity of birds and wildlife.

While there is no identified need for this extra water supply, the diversion would help New Mexico stake its claim to the Gila before the river flows into neighboring Arizona.  There, it gets sucked dry before it reaches its confluence with the Colorado River near Yuma.

On the New Mexico side, the river is actually healthier than it was two decades ago.  In addition to fighting off the dams, conservationists have worked with local ranchers to reduce the damage caused by cattle grazing along the banks and in the floodplain.

“So much riparian restoration is about planting trees, but here the river is healing itself,” said Martha S. Cooper, a forest ecologist and Southwest New Mexico Field Representative with The Nature Conservancy.  “The Gila still has its hydrograph.  The floods still have the power to act creatively on the landscape.”

Forest ecologist Martha Cooper examines a seep willow along the Gila’s banks. photo by Sandra Postel

And so it was, as I traversed the Gila’s watershed, that I began to appreciate something of what the pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold must have felt nearly 90 years ago, when as a forester for the Southwest national forests he persuaded his agency to preserve the upper Gila as wilderness – a place to be left intact and untrammeled by man. His efforts culminated in 1924 in the nation’s first designated wilderness area.  It is from this wilderness that the Gila flows.

The Gila Conservation Coalition (GCC), based in Silver City, New Mexico, and founded in 1984 to fight the proposed dams on the river, is mobilizing now to battle the proposed diversion and develop water supply alternatives that would leave the river unharmed.

Economics, for one, would seem to be on the group’s side.  The diversion would cost an estimated $300 million to construct and another $5 million or more per year to operate. In addition, the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act requires that New Mexico pay an exchange fee for the water diverted to enable the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona to purchase water from the Central Arizona Project (CAP) to make up for the loss of Gila water. (The CAP is a large, federally subsidized diversion of Colorado River water to Arizona cities and farms.) Today the going exchange rate is $122 per acre-foot, which, combined with the project’s costs, would put the price of the diverted water out of reach for most prospective users.

“There are cost-effective alternatives available that can meet our future water needs at low cost, while at the same time keeping the Gila River flowing free,” says GCC Executive Director Allyson Siwik.  Among the alternatives she cites are municipal and agricultural conservation measures, along with water rights acquisitions and sustainable groundwater management – all of which, she maintains, would be “significantly cheaper than (the) diversion.”

It looks to be an uphill battle, though, since New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) appears to favor the diversion and, at least for the moment, has disallowed agricultural conservation projects from being considered as alternative supply options.  The ISC explains its decision by stating that in New Mexico, “increased irrigation efficiency has been shown to increase net depletions” – a gross generalization that flies in the face of numerous examples in the West and worldwide that demonstrate substantial net water savings from irrigation efficiency measures.

As in most of the West, agriculture accounts for the vast majority of the water consumed in the Gila region, so without the ability to consider agricultural measures, it will be harder to make the case for non-diversion alternatives.

Author and river advocate M. H. “Dutch” Salmon. photo by Sandra Postel

M. H. “Dutch” Salmon, who, in his book, Gila Descending, recounts his 220-mile canoe trip from the Gila’s headwaters to Safford, Arizona, and in 1984 co-founded the GCC, worries about finding a solution soon enough to ward off the diversion threat.

“We’re running out of time,” he said, as we talked along the Gila’s banks.

Although no dams block its flow, the Gila already suffers from diversions downstream from where it spills from the mountainous Gila Wilderness into the valley below.  There, earthen embankments siphon flows away from the river to irrigate local farms and ranches, often leaving long stretches of the river dry for many weeks of the summer.

As I stood at one of those diversion points, I wondered about the survival chances of two threatened native fish species – the loach minnow and the spikedace – and how the fledgling cottonwoods and willows would fare if the flood regime was disrupted by a new diversion.  Where would the southwestern willow flycatcher go if this place should become an unsuitable home?  How much should we care?

At the Gila River Festival, an annual gathering in Silver City to celebrate the river and reignite the call-to arms to protect it, again and again I heard the earnest battle cry: Viva El Rio Gila – Wild and Free!

As I headed out of town, a piece of me remained behind.  I’ve studied rivers around the world, but this one had captivated me.

I made a silent wish that if we humans grant even a handful of rivers on this Earth the gift of flowing to Nature’s rhythms rather than our own, that among them will be the Gila.

The gift, truth be told, would be to ourselves.


[A quick update (9/28/11): The ISC has now agreed to allow the study of agricultural conservation measures in the suite of water options under the Arizona Water Settlements Act process.]

[To learn more, visit the website of the Gila Conservation Coalition and TNC’s Gila Riparian Preserve; read my Boston story of conservation versus a river diversion; and check out my blog on why rivers need to flow, high and low.]

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Meet the Author

Sandra Postel
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.