Gila River: New Mexico’s Last Free-flowing River
The Gila River is the last major free-flowing river in New Mexico. Originating in America’s first designated wilderness area, the Gila Wilderness, the Gila River is rich in biological diversity and cultural history. Riparian ecosystems comprise less than 1% of New Mexico’s arid landscape, and the Gila’s natural cycle of flows supports outstanding examples of southwest riparian forest, cold water fisheries and a remarkable abundance of wildlife. The river is critical to the long-term health of wildland ecosystems, including the Gila Middle Box Inventoried Roadless Area, Gila Lower Box Wilderness Study Area, and the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area. The Gila River’s gallery forests are high value bird habitat supporting one of the highest concentrations of breeding birds in America including the federally endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, and other regional specialties like the common black-hawk, Montezuma quail, and the elf owl. The Gila River also provides one of the most intact native fish communities in the Lower Colorado River Basin including the federally threatened loach minnow, spike dace, and Gila trout. Referred to as “the nation’s most variegated stream fishery,” the Gila also supports a naturally reproducing sport fishery where one can catch a wild trout, smallmouth bass and catfish out of the same pool. The Gila provides significant economic value to the region in terms of unparalleled opportunities for outdoor recreation, nature-based specialty travel and wilderness experience.
The Threat to the Gila: Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA)
With the passage of the federal Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004 (AWSA), a small but influential group of farmers, business interests and the state water development agency are advocating for construction of a large diversion on the Gila River. Authorized to capture an average of 14,000 acre-feet of water annually, or double current withdrawals, this “new” water supply is intended to increase crop production and urbanization in the region. Up to $128 million in federal subsidies is available to New Mexico to plan and construct this project. A water development project of this magnitude could severely impact the Gila’s unique ecological and recreational values.
Economic and legal analyses support less expensive and sustainable alternatives to construction of a large diversion of this wild and free-flowing river. Cost-effective solutions, such as municipal and agricultural conservation and sustainable use of groundwater supplies could meet the region’s future water needs. Under the Act, New Mexico can receive over half of the federal subsidy to implement non-diversion alternatives to meet the future water demand of the region while maintaining the Gila’s instream flow and saving U.S. tax payers millions in an unnecessary and ecologically destructive project.
The NM Interstate Stream Commission has developed a website to post workplans, scopes of work and deliverables for public access at www.nmawsa.org .
The New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity (NMCAPE) was formed in 2015 to plan, construct, operate and maintain a NM Unit of the CAP. This group meets monthly to discuss its efforts to develop a proposed action for review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The deadline for a Record of Decision is December 31, 2019. nmcapentity.org
The federal Bureau of Reclamation has the lead for the NEPA process and is the authorized diverter of Gila River water under the AWSA. A complete listing of its roles and responsibilities, as well as key documents are found at its NM Unit webpage.
What is GCC doing to protect the Gila under the AWSA?
The Gila Conservation Coalition advocates for non-diversion alternatives as the cost-effective, common-sense solution for southwest New Mexico’s future water needs and to maintain a healthy Gila River at the same time. GCC has participated in the AWSA planning process since 2005, providing input and review of documents.
What you can do to help save the Gila River
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