Gila River: Exploring a little known landscape – and one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2014

Rugged cliffs, juniper-speckled rolling hills, brilliant blue skies and a tumbling river – the landscapes west of the southern New Mexico town of Silver City harken back to a time of Geronimo and Billy the Kid – both of whom roamed these hills and hollows more than a century ago.

Gila River, NM - June 2014 - Sinjin Eberle, American Rivers

The Gila River once flowed to the Colorado. Now, not so much.| Sinjin Eberle, American Rivers

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I recently visited the bustling copper mining town of Silver City, exploring the natural beauty and historic impacts to New Mexico’s last free-flowing river and one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2014, the Gila. Our mission was to explore the area around the river and see first-hand the threats that literally dry up the stream as it winds out of the Gila National Forest on its journey to Arizona and beyond.

The Gila historically flowed continuously all the way from the mountains of New Mexico through Arizona, where it would join the Colorado to continue its journey through the Colorado Delta to the Gulf of California. Today, the Gila is dried up in many sections along its path, and is essentially stopped cold at the Coolidge Dam near Globe, Arizona.

In New Mexico, the Gila originates in the Black Range, high in the Gila National Forest and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness area – the world’s first designated Wilderness (designated in 1924). It tumbles south out of the mountains near Cliff, New Mexico, where it turns west, heading to Safford, AZ and points west. But immediately after the river exits the mountains, it is heavily diverted for agriculture – often with manual techniques like earthen push-up diversions, which are hard on the river and choke the flows down to a trickle. Much of the water that runs through the fields comes back to the river as return flows, but still leaves entire stretches bone dry.

A more recent threat to the Gila is a pending proposal by the State of New Mexico to build a dam just as the river exits the mountains, diverting large amounts of water out of the Gila basin south to the town of Deming, New Mexico. This proposal would create an enormously expensive and unwise project, (and a new trans-basin diversion) which would dramatically impact the local agricultural community that depends on downstream flows, as well as the array of threatened and endangered wildlife, the lush, spectacular riverside vegetation, and the spiritual and historic character that the Gila provides in the valley.

American Rivers is working with local landowners, conservationists, and local public officials to find solutions that keep agriculture sustainable, provides reliable water for people, and keeps the river healthy. With your support of our America’s Most Endangered Rivers effort, we are able to shine the spotlight on gems like the Gila, and work to restore and improve our most threatened rivers.

Be a hero for the Gila – take action today!

4 Responses to “Gila River: Exploring a little known landscape – and one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2014”


Please, do not build any more dams. They damage the environment and hurt the living animals. We have done too much of that already.

Lib Putnam

The Gila River has been around since forever times. It is a beautiful sight in the middle of desert landscapes. (1969)i
was there with my children and we marveled at its beauty.

Unfortunately, as we live in th East, we hav not been able to check on its present condition and am most distressed to hear of its sad deterioration.

I truly hope and anticipate that the American Rivers organization can restore the Gila to its original pristine place in the west.

David Booth

Please do not dam the Gila River. It is a critical part of our heritage and we need a solution that keeps the river healthy while supporting agriculture in a dry era.

William English

I always remember the beauty of the drive to Silver City 20 years ago. I hope that when I go back there I will still see a beautiful Gila River.