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Will The Gila River Stay Wild In New Mexico?

Laura Paskus

Before the end of the year New Mexico officials will have to make a decision about water development in the state—they’ll decide what will happen to the Gila River. It’s a decision that’s been ten years in the making. But as details emerge, some lawmakers and scientists are worried about the future of New Mexico’s last free flowing river.

We’re standing on the banks of the northern Rio Grande, about forty miles downstream of Colorado. We’re next to a small diversion which waters some pasture and a garden in the village of Pilar, N.M.

“This is a push up dam," said Steve Harris, river guide and river advocate. "This is the way that most acequias get water out of streams. Put a lot of rocks and brush in there, and it raises the head, see the little pool up there? It forces down into ditch here.”

This year, Harris was paying close attention to the New Mexico State Legislature. He was especially interested in a bill protecting the Gila River.

Down on the Gila in the southwestern corner of the state, small farms already take water from the river. But unlike the rest of New Mexico’s rivers, the Gila River is free of big infrastructure.

“It’s a funny river because while it may run tens of thousand of cfs [cubic feet per second] in spring runoff events or a monsoon event, almost always in June and July and August, it runs dry,” said Harris. “And its headwaters have been grazed, it’s suffering from some of the same water extraction activities all rivers of the West have to contend with. But it is a precious thing.” 

Right now, the Gila River’s fate is up in the air.

Thanks to a series of court decisions and federal laws, New Mexico will have to decide:  Take $66 million in federal funding and use that for conservation projects in southwestern New Mexico. This could include things like making farms more efficient or harvesting rainwater.  Towns could fix leaky pipes.

Or New Mexico could pipe water from the Gila River, store it in nearby arroyos—then try selling it to farmers, cities, or corporations.

If the state does that, New Mexico will receive another $34 million.

But that won’t cover the $350 million price tag to divert the Gila. State Senator Peter Wirth wonders about the gap in funding.

“When I look at the Gila, it just doesn’t come close to being a diversion project that really makes sense, at least it hasn’t been shown to me yet, " Wirth said. "Just the amount of water for the amount of dollars involved in getting that water, from a cost benefit standpoint doesn’t work. And then you are talking about one of the last free flowing rivers in the West.”

Wirth introduced a bill directing New Mexico to choose conservation over diversion during this year’s state Legislative session.

Norm Gaume testified in favor of the bill. He’s a former director of theInterstate Stream Commission which will decide what happens on the Gila. Gaume said the project’s engineering plans are flawed. “This project is really a leftover from the era of water development which hit its heyday in New Mexico a century ago,” he said.

Gaume said he’s also wary that a state study overestimates how much water could be taken from the river, especially as the climate warms and snowpack decreases. 

The Senate never voted on the bill, which didn’t even pass the Conservation Committee.  But scientists worry the diversion project will go forward despite widespread opposition.

Tom Turner cringes when he hears “fish versus farmers.” That is: we can use water for farms, cities, industry.  Or protect rivers, fish and wildlife.

Turner’s a professor at the University of New Mexico. He’s worked in the Gila for almost two decades. He says ecosystems are like economies. The more diverse they are, the more resilient they are. “When people talk about this in economics, they say a well-diversified portfolio tends to withstand economic turmoil,” he explained. “A diverse community can withstand environmental changes much, much better because of the subtle interactions of species.”

In public meetings, state officials have appeared to favor the diversion plan. But Estevan López, director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, said that’s not so. “In the past two years, probably even longer, there’s been numerous times in which it’s been alleged that we’ve already made a decision that there will be a diversion,” he said. “I don’t think that’s true at all. I know that our commission has not made a decision.”

Interstate Stream Commission staff are still considering all the different proposals – some conserving water and others diverting water from the Gila River. This fall they’ll make a recommendation to the actual commissioners, currently nine men appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez.

Editor's Note: For the first 200 miles of the Gila River's total 649 miles it is free flowing in New Mexico. The proposed diversion would be in that free flowing section of the upper Gila River.