We Might Lose One of the West's Last Wild Rivers

The Gila is America’s most endangered river. What do we stand to lose if it disappears thanks to climate change and overuse?

A dog plays in the Gila River as two people look on. The river's flow is lower than usual, and the snowpack feeding it is expected to be gone by mid-century. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/Getty)
Photo: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/Getty rivers

In a dry corner of the country, the Gila River corridor is lush and green. There are ancient, 20-foot-wide cottonwoods along the banks and rare Gila Trout in the riffles. The river’s source is the Gila Wilderness, the first wilderness area in the U.S.—set aside in 1924 because of a push from Aldo Leopold, who saw the value of an unbroken, untouched landscape and recognized the Gila’s biological and topographic diversity.

Where the Gila spills out of the wilderness and into the Cliff-Gila valley, it irrigates a range of food crops. Upstream, it’s home to one of the highest concentrations of breeding birds in the country, including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, and it supports one of the last remaining intact native fish communities. There is tricky, ephemeral paddling in the upper reaches, called the Gila Wilderness Runand farther downstream, you can float the less technical, but still beautiful Gila Box. That combination of rare factors reflects the fact that the Gila is one of the few undammed western rivers and the last major free flowing river in New Mexico, which means ecological processes, flows, habitat, and more are as undisturbed as they can be in a heavily human-influenced world.

Whatever part of water use you might think is most important—from farms to fish to floating—the Gila is a stronghold, but right now its tenability as a habitat and a water source is threatened by nature and by humans. This year is a tipping point.

On April 16, American Rivers announced their annual most endangered rivers list, a yearly marker for the health of rivers, and in 2019, the Gila was number one. Scientists estimate that, due to climate change, the snowpack that feeds the Gila will be gone by mid-century and flows will shrink by up to 10 percent over the same period. Global warming is wringing the river dry, and a proposed major diversion project that could pull 14,000 acre feet—about the equivalent of the yearly water use for 30,000 households—out of the river each year, stressing it even further.

“It’s a river that’s ground zero for climate, and if the diversion were put in place it would seriously disrupt things,” says Sinjin Eberle, American Rivers’ Communications Director for the Intermountain West. He says that the diversion project could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and yield little to no water due to low flows on the river and climate change.

There have been a series of planned and failed diversion plans on the Gila since the 1960s, says Allyson Siwik, the director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, but this one had been threatening the river for a decade and a half. The impetus dates back to 2004, when Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlements Act. In the settlement, New Mexico received access to 14,000 acre-feet of river water and $66 million of federal money to spend on water projects.

The diversion plan, which would use those funds and would pull water out of the river right at the head of the valley where it leaves the wilderness, is shepherded by the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, a 15-member group from counties, municipalities, irrigation districts, soil and water conservation districts in the area, and New Mexico's Interstate Stream Commission. They largely represent agriculture interests and see the diversion as a way to secure water for their constituents in four counties along the border with Arizona. But they appear to be operating out of future fear instead of direct need. So far, they’ve spent $17 million and haven’t even produced an Environmental Impact Statement for the project. Laura Paskus from the New Mexico Political Report found that, “supporters of the project have not yet identified users or buyers for the water,” and that water from the project would cost $450 per acre foot, almost tripling its current rate.

Still, those groups have major political clout. Diversions are a popular, long-standing way to shore up water rights, and it’s not hard to understand the fear because it’s baked into water policy and the reality of living and growing food in a dry land.

“Historically, if you have the opportunity, you never say no to water, regardless of the cost,” Siwik says. But, she adds, there are a series of other projects that are also eligible for the Arizona Water Settlement Act funds that wouldn’t divert the river, and which will hopefully allocate the state’s water more efficiently. They range from municipal water conservation, to effluent reuse for fields, to watershed restoration—all of which save water.

This year is a telltale one for the Gila’s future because a record of decision, a formal decision spelled out for public record, on the diversion process is due in December 2019, and if the NM CAP Entity doesn’t produce one, they lose access to funding. The Interior Secretary could extend the deadline, but the Entity would have to show that they weren’t responsible for the delays. And as that process goes on, the political climate could be shifting.

In her state water plan, newly-elected New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham pledged to end work on the Gila River Diversion Project. “I will take whatever steps are available to withdraw the proposal for the diversion project and ask the ISC to explore alternatives to diversion with local governments and stakeholders and develop appropriate plans,” the plan read. “I also will work with our Congressional delegation to ensure that the Gila River is protected by federal law.” In early April, she line vetoed $1.7 million of state funding for the diversion.

Her statement is a reflection of how the powers that have managed water in the past, like state government, are changing their attitude about water projects, and why they need to.

This year’s endangered rivers list has a heavy emphasis on how climate will change water sources—the Hudson’s sensitivity to storm surges, for instance, and threatened salmon runs in the Northwest—and how collaboration and conservation through multiple use are becoming crucial. “Hard decisions are being made about how do we want to treat our rivers going forward?" Eberle says. "How do we build in resilience?” 

The Gila’s fragile wildness is important on its own merit, but it’s also a bellwether for the future of rivers. If the diversion goes through, we stand to lose the resilience of last wild river in an increasingly hot and dry state. But if the diversion fails, it’s a signal for the way we might think about managing and using drought-prone waterways in the future, when there simply won’t be enough water to go around.

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