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.
OPPORTUNITIES TO PLAY AND LEARN
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.
A WEALTH OF HISTORY
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.
THREATS TO THE GILA RIVER
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
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.
WHY DIVERSION OF THE WILD GILA IS SO WRONG
The Gila River is New Mexico’s last major undammed river
- Flowing out of America’s first Wilderness Area, the Gila is home to seven threatened or endangered species.
- The Gila River is proposed for long-term protection under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.
Diversion will harm the Gila River
- The project will take water at low flow levels, during ecologically critical times.
- This will harm wildlife, limit recreation opportunities and potentially impact irrigators.
- 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.
It’s expensive and wasteful
- According to the Preliminary Draft EIS, the AWSA construction reimbursement will not cover the project’s full cost, leaving a gap of millions of dollars for citizens to cover.
- AWSA water will be many times more expensive than currently available water.
Diversion proposal is not functional and will have unreliable yield
- The concept proposed by the NM CAP Entity is not functional or practical for water development.
- The Bureau of Reclamation estimates the project would provide an average of 2,600 acre-feet per year, however in many years there would be no water at all.
- The ISC and NM CAP Entity have wasted $15 million to date (2019) and 15 years without identifying a feasible diversion project.
WHY DIVERSION OF THE GILA RIVER IS SO UNNECESSARY
- According to water studies, Southwest New Mexico groundwater supplies can meet water needs far into the future if sustainably managed.
- Proposed use of AWSA water would only benefit a small number of farmers and international mining giant Freeport-McMoRan.
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.
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.