Will New Mexico Lose Its Last Wild River?

As the deadline for the Gila River diversion project looms, locals are taking action to save a critical ecosystem.

On a humid, blue-skied morning in July, Jarrod Swackhamer led a tiny group through the cottonwood and black walnut trees and open fields along southwestern New Mexico’s Gila River, downstream of where it pours out of the Gila National Forest, the nation’s first designated wilderness area. A tributary of the Colorado River, the 650-mile Gila is a low-volume river, even by southwestern standards, but it supports more than 200 bird species throughout the year, including the Yellow-billed Cuckoo and the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. That morning, Yellow-breasted Chats and Common Yellowthroats sang in the brush and Red-winged Blackbirds flitted across the fields.

Swackhamer is a member of Southwestern New Mexico Audubon, the state’s oldest Audubon chapter, which was formed in the mid-1960s to protest a proposed dam just upstream from here. That effort was successful, and over the past five decades this stretch of the Gila has managed to escape the fate of other southwestern rivers that have been dammed and diverted to supply cities like Phoenix, Tucson, and Albuquerque. That may change. This month, the state hopes to get approval from the Interior Department to move forward with a plan to build a major diversion on the Gila that will siphon billions of gallons of water each year away from the river and the habitats it supports, and pipe it to farms and towns across the southwestern part of the state.

Water deals are never simple in the West, and the Gila diversion project is no exception. In 2004, the Arizona Water Settlements Act, a federal law dealing with water rights in the Southwest, granted New Mexico permission to divert up to about 4.5 billion gallons annually from the Gila. (Any specific diversion proposal by the state would still be subject to the normal federal review process, including an Environmental Impact Statement.) It also promised $66 million in federal funding for any new water projects the state chose to take on, plus an additional $34 to $62 million to support the capital costs of a diversion project, should the state choose to pursue one. 

For the past decade, environmental groups have urged New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission, which was charged with making the decision, to use the federal funds for water conservation initiatives, like improving irrigation efficiency and recycling wastewater. But in the end the opportunity to stake a claim on the Gila’s water proved too great a temptation, and last fall the ISC announced its intention to build a diversion. “This opportunity for New Mexico to develop the additional up-to-14,000 acre-feet of Gila River water is a one-time opportunity,” the acting ISC director said at the time. “We're not going to see a new supply of water like this again." Now, Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has until November 23 to sign an agreement with the ISC that will set the environmental review process into motion.

Opponents of the project, including Audubon New Mexico, the Gila Resources Information Project, and numerous other environmental groups, argue that building a diversion on this nearly pristine stretch of the river will destroy a critical natural system. The Gila’s ability to support its diversity of wildlife is due to the fluctuation of its flows, and their interaction with groundwater systems. “When we tinker with how a river system works by manipulating the flows, we change the health of that ecosystem,” said Beth Bardwell, Audubon New Mexico’s Director of Freshwater Conservation. During heavy rainstorms and snowmelt runoff periods, its channel can barely contain the torrent, sending water (and nutrients) rushing across the floodplains, rejuvenating the habitat. The ecosystems in the river and in the forest and wetlands that surround it depend on these flows, according to a study last year by the Nature Conservancy, and altering them could cause “a cascading negative effect on the aquatic and riparian ecosystem.” The report concluded that a diversion, in combination with climate change, “creates risk of significant ecological impact.”

The project’s potential ecological consequences aren’t the only reason it’s facing opposition. For one thing, the $100 million or so the feds have committed barely even begins to cover the estimated $1 billion price tag for the project, and the ISC hasn’t explained where, exactly, it plans to find the extra cash. Furthermore, some critics of the plan have argued the river can’t deliver the amount of water the state is hoping it will yield. An analysis by retired ISC director Norman Gaume, who opposes the diversion, estimates that about half the time the diversion’s annual yield would likely be zero. And the river’s returns will only diminish as climate change shrinks surface water supplies even further.

“Here we are, talking about going ahead with a billion dollar project no one wants to pay for, and which we think is technically unfeasible and environmentally unfeasible," said Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Resources Information Project. "It just doesn't make sense."

If the diversion does move forward, the best-case scenario for the Gila’s wildlife is that the project eventually just falls apart as its financial and practical impossibilities become too glaring to ignore. But that could take years, and local conservation groups argue that New Mexico can’t afford to waste any time or money when it comes to developing a practical, sustainable approach to water management.

“What’s really at stake is southwestern New Mexico’s water future,” said Sharon Wirth, Freshwater Program Manager for Audubon New Mexico. By committing to a financially and environmentally questionable diversion plan, said Wirth, the state is missing an opportunity to invest the federal money in conservation and efficiency measures “that will give us a sustainable water supply, much sooner, and at a fraction of the cost.”

What you can do: Urge Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reject the Gila River diversion proposal.