The Gila River

The only wild, free-flowing river in New Mexico and one of a handful in the Southwest.

Do you remember seeing a river for the first time?

It’s a warm, late summer afternoon. The sunbeams filter down through the cottonwood canopy overhead.

Close your eyes, do you remember the sound you heard – the water splashing over the rocks and then falling into a deep pool; did it chortle; did it whisper?

Do you remember hearing the soft splash off the side of riverbanks as your eyes watched it begin to turn white and foam?

Maybe you heard the “fitz-bew” call of the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher or the “high-sharp whistle” of the Common Black Hawk.

All while the rustle of the wind, faintly whispering to the leaves of a 200-year-old cottonwood could be heard ever so slightly? 

Did you smell the rich earthy minerals carried by the flows or the musty odors emanating from surrounding trees and rocks?

Do you remember what you saw?

Possibly, colors of burnt orange fading into brown like a water color painting from the ancient pocketed cliffs?

Maybe a silver flicker of light from the tail of a wild trout?

Did you see the warm reflection from the sun sparkling on the fragile surface of the water?

Maybe you saw yourself?

What did the river say?

This is the Gila River. The only wild, free-flowing river in New Mexico and one of a handful in the Southwest.

On July 20th, as joint leads for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, the Bureau of Reclamation and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission concluded the first phase, the public comment preparation period of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Gila River diversion project (NM Unit) proposed by the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity (NM CAP Entity).

This has been long coming, actually fifty years in the making. Audubon New Mexico (ANM) would like to extend a sincere thank you to all of the dedicated members, government officials, friends, allies, and New Mexico’s first Audubon chapter:  Southwestern New Mexico Audubon Society for standing together, submitting comments, and bringing forth a voice yet again for the protection of the Gila River. Together, we have proven repeatedly that we can be a force for change.

ANM with Western Resource Advocates jointly submitted a comment letter to consider and implement cheaper and more effective, sustainable non-diversion alternatives to meet southwest New Mexico’s water supply needs as noted in our report:  AN AFFORDABLE & SECURE FUTURE WATER SUPPLY FOR THE CITY OF DEMING, a local water conservation and efficiency alternative to importing water from the Gila River. The letter outlines the importance of affordable water conservation and efficiency solutions to help Deming, Southwest New Mexico’s largest community, meet future water needs, save tens of millions of dollars in capital improvements, build resiliency to drought, safeguard birds, and protect the state’s crown jewel, the Gila River. There is a high risk of potentially losing the largest stretch of cottonwood-willow riparian forest remaining in New Mexico, one of the highest concentrations of breeding birds in North America, and the degradation of a living river that provides significant economic value to the region with unparalleled opportunities for outdoor recreation, nature-based travel, and wilderness exploration experiences.

The Gila is more than a river. One of the world’s longer desert rivers at 649 miles, the Gila River reaches from Southwestern New Mexico to Yuma, Arizona, where it meets the Colorado River. A tributary of the Colorado River, the Gila River originates in America’s first designated wilderness areas, the Gila Wilderness, and is rich in biological diversity and cultural history. Along its banks, southwestern sunlight filters through century-old cottonwood and billowing sycamore trees that tell stories of the Southwest’s ancient past. It is home to seven threatened or endangered species and is proposed for long-term protection under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. The New Mexico headwaters support 250 species of birds, one of the most intact native fish communities in the region, and a long list of diverse wildlife that include everything from the mountain lion to the threatened loach minnow, spike dace, and the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The Gila River is a unique, last of its kind gem important to sportsmen, tribes, farmers, and tourists alike. New Mexico’s last free-flowing river is no doubt, a source of life.

The proposed NM Unit is expensive, unaffordable, and will harm threatened and endangered species and riparian habitat along the Gila and San Francisco rivers. The NM CAP Entity's intention to divert in the future the full 14,000 acre-feet per year under the Arizona Water Settlement Act (AWSA) is speculative and unnecessary. Designs for development were inspired by the AWSA, which awarded New Mexico with $66 million to $128 million in funds and the right to withhold 14,000 acre-feet of water annually from its Arizona neighbors.

While we, along many other conservation organizations oppose water development on the Gila River, many other individuals and groups have argued in favor for the sake of meeting future water needs. According to our published Water Alternative report, such developments are unnecessary, and current and future water needs in these communities can be met without drastic alteration of the river. If water issues are to be properly addressed, federal money may be better used to purchase sustainable innovative irrigation systems and invest in water reuse projects rather than building a rapidly evaporating desert reservoir. As outlined in our report: sustainable groundwater management of the Mimbres Basin aquifer; water conservation and water leak detection and repair; water reuse; and transfer of existing city-owned agricultural water rights to municipal use (as planned by the city) would be more viable and yield a higher percentage of water, thereby extending the viability of present water resources that include the Gila River and a large rechargeable aquifer.

Given the alternatives, water developments that would destroy our last wild river—New Mexico’s natural heritage—and still fail to meet our needs do not appear to be the best or only answer the southwestern New Mexico’s water concerns. It is a complicated matter, demanding deep consideration, thoughtful review and action of all of the comments and water alternatives submitted during this public commenting period. Our hope is that rivers continue to guide us toward the answers we seek, urging us all to listen to their voices.

The need to protect the Gila River inspires us to keep working, validating conservation work that at times over the fifty years seemed futile. Protecting our rivers and dedicating nature’s share of water for birds, wildlife and the habitat they depend on is not easy or quick work, as we have come to realize with the Gila River.

Stay tuned as the NEPA process unfolds, and thank you again for being Gila River Stewards!

How you can help, right now