Changing Planet

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 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.]

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.
  • Tom Murphy

    Very, very well written. Thank you.

  • Anthony

    Thank you for this story. As a member of the Gila River Indian Community our elders are still sadden by the disappearance of our water. The loss has lead our community to highest occurrence of diabetes in the world.

  • Donna Stevens

    Thank you, Sandra, for this lovely story about the beautiful Gila River. Let’s leave it for our children to love, just as we do. Viva El Rio Gila – Wild and Free!

  • Anthony

    Being a lifetime resident of Gila, I read this article and it is filled with misconseptions and information that is inaccurate. Throughout my lifetime i have seen many thing happen to the river system even as far as the river being cleared of vegitation and banked on both sides. Although this article paints a glorious picture it lacks history. The farmers and ranchers in the area are the most environmentally minded people I have ever met. There intent is to best utilize the water that comes at huge flood stages and storing this water to be utilized instead of extracting water at the times when there is low flow as mentioned above. Most of these Ag. people are generations of farmers and ranchers and have a love and respect for the river that people who visit will never have. So I would ask that if you are going to write an article about the river maybe, just maybe you should include people like me who come from the people who have lived here and continue to live here with the intent of fully utiizing and respecting Gods creation.

  • Oscar Simpson

    Great story Sandra. I frequently recreate in the Gila National Forest roadless and wilderness areas and walked or rode my horse along much of the east, middle & west forks of the Gila River. The life blood of the wilderness is it’s water. New Mexicans need to get involved to make sure the rest of the Gila River in NM is not dammed or it’s water is diverted.

  • Walter “Ski” Szymanski

    Thank you, Sandra, for your lovely word painting of the Gila River and what we all stand to lose if the threat of a proposed diversion comes true.

    As the future of the Gila River is being pondered, I think it good if we all kept in mind this Aldo Leopold quote from his Song of the Gavilan essay:

    “The good life of any river may depend on the perception of its music; and the preservation of some music to perceive.”

  • michael patrick goodman

    Yes, we must never allow this national treasure to be dammed. I applaude the efforts of these good people to fight to keep the Rio Gila free. And, yet, water is the continuous anguish of the West, for without it our farms and ranches perish. I feel these are equally as important, vital to the magnificent landscape of New Mexico.

  • kathy whiteman

    Thank you for writing about the Gila Sandra!

  • Patrick McCarthy

    Sandra, you managed to capture the beauty and the issues perfectly in this short piece. I especially appreciate your “silent wish.” Thank you so much. As Oscar wrote above, we New Mexicans need to speak up to keep this great river alive.

  • Paul Schlueb

    Stationed in Yuma, Arizona for 2 years (1981-82), and witnessing the changes made to the beautiful Colorado River, I am pleased to hear of the protection and improvements made to the Gila River. I would urge everyone who claims to care to get involved, and cross over the line into action. This involves learning all that you can about the subject, identifying all parties entailed (political, state, and local), and channeling your efforts towards these entities. Also allign yourselves with groups such as the Gila Conservation Coalition, who fight for such a noble cause. Don’t take the wonderful things around you for granted, and get out and experience them if you can. Do not underestimate what dedicated individuals or small groups of people can do to make things better (or at least keep them from getting worse.

  • sydni frazier

    you captured the beauty of the river and its just what i need for my project.

  • […] of the Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness, a rugged gem of a landscape and the headwaters of the Gila River, a tributary to the […]

  • […] Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness, a rugged gem of a landscape and the headwaters of the Gila River, a tributary to the Colorado.   The two biggest fires on record in the state have occurred in […]

  • T.

    10 or so years ago I took my small RV to the birding area afew miles down river the Gila river from Red Rock N.M..
    I have a unusual hot tubbing sytem that uses a camp fire.
    I carried 30 5 gallon buckets of water, 100 yards from the river to complie with camping regs. Thank god I have Berkey water filter. The water I hauled to fill my hot tub was gross. I have been a pro chef for over 40 years in the area. I know the local N,M state heath inpecters. I happened to run n to one within a few days of my trip.
    I told him about the soap bubbles in the water, that has to come illeagal septic systems in Red Rock. I just want to know if me telling a Gov. person did any good, later t

  • […] the New Mexico side of the border, however, the Gila is an ecological gem, supporting one of the healthiest cottonwood-willow riparian forests to be found in the desert […]

  • […] river has been under threat for years, according to National Geographic, but environmentalists have helped protect it. Over the last 20 […]

  • […] U.S. Secretary of Interior whether it will pursue the construction of a diversion project on the Gila River in the southwestern corner of the […]

  • […] which U.S. Secretary of Interior Sally Jewel must decide whether to green-light the development of a major diversion project on the Gila, New Mexico’s last undammed […]

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