The Gila River

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Picture a place where over 300 species of bird have been recorded; where streamside habitat supports wildlife ranging from the reclusive mountain lion to the threatened loach minnow, and where no large dams impede the natural flow of waters. Sound like Shangri La? It is, and it’s Southwest New Mexico’s Gila River. The Gila (“Hee-la”) is one of the last wild, free-flowing rivers in the Southwest, and we all benefit from it staying that way. Consider not just the amazing ecological treasures nurtured by the Gila, but its recreational, educational and historical values.

Ever dream about exploring where few have gone before? The Gila’s headwaters, protected as America’s first wilderness area by the legendary naturalist and outdoorsman Aldo Leopold, comprise one of the largest roadless areas in the lower 48 States. How about fishing in the quiet shade of gigantic cottonwood and sycamore trees? Or rafting beneath sheer hoodoos and through lush riparian vegetation? Birders can observe the variety of the Gila’s riparian birds, such as the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher. Scientists study the river’s flows and ecological functions. The Gila is a precious gem.

The Gila River is a witness to history. Gunslingers, cowboys and outlaws holed up along the river’s banks. Geronimo, fierce defender of his Apache homeland, was born at the headwaters of the Gila. Before the nomadic Apaches, cliff-dwellers built their homes in the Gila’s tributary canyons; shards of their pottery, the pieces of their lives, still abound. Close your eyes, listen to the river: the voices of those who have come before can still be heard.

For more information, visit the links below:
The Nature Conservancy, Gila Riparian Preserve
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Silver City Museum

People have used the Gila River for thousands of years, but more recently urban and agricultural interests intend to take more than the river can give. Imperiled fish, birds and other wildlife need the river’s water too, as do people who find solace and refreshment in fishing, birding, rafting and hiking. Bureaucrats and politicians continue to eye this last wild Southwest river for water “development” projects, such as dams and diversions.

Already the river now fails to flow all the way to the Colorado, as it once did, because of excessive water use in Arizona. Friends of the free-flowing Gila have thwarted several ill-advised projects in the past. In the 1970s, plans for the Hooker Dam failed to pass muster because the reservoir would have drowned the wilderness.

In the 1980’s, other projects, the Conner Dam and its alternative, the Mangas Diversion, were defeated because of extravagant costs that Silver City, NM residents refused to pay. Now those who would drain the river and empty the pockets of residents of southwestern New Mexico are back.

The latest threat stems from an amendment to the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act, which provides $66 million of federal money for any water-related purpose in southwestern New Mexico, and encourages the state to divert 14,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Gila River and its tributary the San Francisco River. If used sensibly, this funding could provide the financing for critical water and wastewater infrastructure and municipal and agricultural conservation needs. New Mexico may receive an additional $34 – $62 million for a “NM Unit”  to consumptively use Gila River water.


~ A diversion project would take out almost twice the amount of water from the river as is already being removed for industry and agriculture.

~ A diversion project would impair the river’s natural cycle of flows, which could drastically change riparian conditions and threaten native species of fish and the myriad of other species that depend on a free-flowing river, including the endangered southwest willow flycatcher, spikedace and loach minnow.

~ A water development project of this magnitude could significantly diminish the economic benefit the Gila provides to the region in terms of unparalleled opportunities for outdoor recreation, nature-based specialty travel and wilderness experience.


$66 million is available to meet water needs in Southwest New Mexico.
$66 million is available to the four counties of southwestern New Mexico for meeting water supply demands in the region. There is no requirement that those funds be used for a Gila River diversion project.

No need for Gila River water has been demonstrated.
The regional aquifer contains enough water to supply Silver City for hundreds of years. Deming’s 2009 water plan demonstrates that it has acquired enough water rights to meet future demand over the 40-year planning period. The Gila-San Francisco Basin is allowed 31,000 acre-feet/year (afy) in depletion right. However, it is only using 27,000 afy. 4,000 acre-feet goes unused annually.

THE RESPONSIBLE CHOICE – Real Solutions for Southwest NM’s Long-term Water Needs:

Implementation of proven conservation and water efficiency measures can sharply reduce the amount of water needed in the future at a fraction of the cost of a Gila River diversion dam and pipeline project. Conservation and sustainable use of groundwater can secure our water future without building a costly diversion project that will alter the character of the Gila River forever. These strategies range in cost from $11-­ $360/acre-­foot for municipal conservation, $517/acre­foot for drip irrigation, and $98-$274/acre-foot for sustainable groundwater management. These solutions compare to tens of thousands of dollars/acre-­foot for construction of a Gila River diversion project.
Conservation and sustainable use of groundwater can secure our water future without building a costly diversion project that will alter the Gila River forever. Common-sense conservation saves the tax-payer money and protects the Gila River for our future.

Learn more about what you can do here on our Action Alert! page.