Human Journey

New Mexicans Call for Conservation over River Diversions

The Gila River in southwestern New Mexico is an ecological gem, but is threatened by a proposed diversion. Photo by Sandra Postel

The western United States was settled with the help of big dams and river diversions that delivered distant water to burgeoning cities and farms, but at least one state is saying it’s time to shift gears.

In a resounding voice of support for river protection, 85 percent of New Mexico residents say they want officials to address the state’s water problems through conservation, recycling and wiser use of existing water supplies – not by diverting more water from the state’s rivers.

In a poll conducted this past June, the vast majority of New Mexicans said that rivers are critical to the state’s quality of life and economy, and want to protect them for future generations.

Nine-in-ten believe the state’s rivers are “at risk” at the present time.

When asked specifically about the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico, which in recent years has come under threats of a diversion to send water over the Continental Divide to cities and farms, 61 percent of respondents sided with the no-diversion stance once they were informed about the project’s details, while only 36% sided with the pro-diversion position.

A beautiful desert river that supports a rich diversity of birds and wildlife, the Gila (pronounced Hee-la) is the last undammed river in New Mexico and historically was a crucial tributary to the Colorado River.  For millennia, the river emerged from what are now the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness areas, and flowed across southwestern New Mexico and through Arizona before emptying into the Colorado River at Yuma, near the U.S.-Mexican border.

In Arizona, water users drain the Gila dry. Photo by Sandra Postel
In Arizona, water users drain the Gila dry. Photo by Sandra Postel

Today, however, water users in Arizona take all of the Gila’s flow, leaving the river completely dry and delivering no water to the depleted Colorado.

On 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 southwest, as well as a variety of threatened and endangered species.

This past summer, scientists working along the Gila discovered several northern Mexican gartersnakes – a candidate for federal listing as endangered and, until this find, believed by many to be extirpated from New Mexico.

During the polling, the more New Mexicans learned about the proposed Gila diversion, which would siphon as much as 14,000 acre-feet (4.56 billion gallons) a year from the river, the more strongly they opposed it.

While the federal government would subsidize a portion of the diversion project, which emerged in response to the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA), New Mexico’s taxpayers and water users would be saddled with some two-thirds of the estimated $300 million cost to build the pipeline.

On top of that, the Act requires New Mexico to pay Arizona for any Gila water it diverts.  That’s because the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona owns that water, and New Mexico would have to pay Arizona to deliver replacement supplies.

As a clincher, the AWSA provides $66 million for community water projects to help meet local water needs in southwestern New Mexico.  These funds could be used to invest in urban and agricultural conservation measures, sustainable groundwater use and other solutions that make better use of local water supplies – and would cost far less than the diversion project.

Historically, big water decisions have been made in an authoritarian, top-down manner, often with little involvement or say from the public.

Thanks to this poll – which was commissioned by Protect the Flows, a network of nearly 900 businesses in the seven states of the Colorado River Basin, and conducted by the market research firm Public Opinion Strategies – the voice of the people has been brought into the debate.

The state of New Mexico must notify the U.S. Secretary of the Interior by December 2014 as to whether or not it will divert Gila River water.

Hopefully, state officials will heed the public’s wishes for more cost-effective and environmentally sound water alternatives – and keep the Gila River flowing strong.


Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.

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.
  • Jeff Davis

    And on the other side of the state, where the homes all have grass in the yards and water conservation is a foreign term a project has already started to divert water from the Canadian River 100 miles south to the City of Clovis

  • Kathleen O’Keefe

    Which state officials can we contact to let them know we do not want water diverted from the Gila River? Thank you. This is a wonderful article. The two photos of the Gila really say it all.

  • Chad Waits

    I had a chance to float the Gila Box in AZ this summer on a great monsoon flow and was absolutely blown away with the amazing scenery, pristine wildlife, and sheer desolation. My friends and I are planning a spring trip down the upper portion below the confluence of the west and east forks next year. Thanks for the insight. This gem needs to be protected at all costs.

  • rios,ritos, and lagos

    the animas river in northwest new mexico is still undamed as well

  • Shirley Fenile

    3 r’s apply. Reduse, Reuse, and Recycle. Until ALL adhere to reducing usage, planting draught tolerant, and installing rain barrel collection systems we must stop this natural onslaught! I LOVED visiting Gila’s natural diversity. Real estate flippers in San Diego need educating. Planting green front lawns and pulling out draught tolerant landscaping should be prosecuted. If that’s what it takes to make folks understand the crucial necessity of a new water ethic. Hell, folks talk about desalinization before they’ll do anything to change the status quot. We’ve effed up the ecosystem on land, well, let’s just violate the ocean. It’s stupidity. Or ignorance.

  • Adam

    The article seems a bit one sided, but there isn’t a reasonable argument on the other side so well done!
    No one who has seen the Gila would trade harming that unbelievably beautiful and unique river for the water you can divert from it, and that’s why it doesn’t even fly for the supposed benefactors – too many of them have actually seen the river!

    Seems to me more likely few people are just looking to make some money – there’s no public support at all because it makes no sense.

  • hollidark

    I was stationed in NM from 98 to 02 and have longed to return there (from coastal NC) for good with my family but I have always been concerned with the future of the water resources. This article gives me hope that people are paying attention. Shirley makes a good point. I often met people who moved to NM from other states and it seemed they would try bring that vegetation with them. Often I found myself asking “why are you trying to get sod to take?”, “why are you soaking your freshly seeded lawn overnight?”. Lack of awareness I suppose. They just seemed like they were permanent tourists. Perhaps I should make a mailer and send out instead of waiting for someone else to do something…

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