America’s Most Endangered Rivers for 2014: Gila River
Threat: New water diversions
At Risk: River health, fish & wildlife, recreation, and tourism
New Mexico’s last free-flowing river, the Gila, is threatened by an expensive and unnecessary water diversion and pipeline project. The new diversions, pipelines, and storage reservoirs would not only harm wildlife, fish, and river health, but would negatively impact local economies dependent upon outdoor recreation and tourism. New Mexico Governor Susan Martinez must protect the Gila River and ensure that her Interstate Stream Commission consider and implement cheaper and more effective non-diversion alternatives to meet southwest New Mexico’s water supply needs.
A tributary to the Colorado River, the Gila originates in America’s first designated wilderness area, the Gila Wilderness, and is rich in biological diversity and cultural history. The Gila River supports healthy riverside forests, cold water fisheries, and a remarkable abundance of wildlife. The river is critical to the long-term health of these wild ecosystems.
The Gila’s forests provide high quality bird habitat— supporting one of the highest concentrations of breeding birds in America— including the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, threatened Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and other species unique to the region, such as the Common Black-Hawk, Montezuma Quail, and the Elf Owl.
The Gila River also supports some of the most intact native fish populations in the Lower Colorado River Basin, including the federally endangered loach minnow, spike dace, and threatened Gila trout. The Gila provides significant economic value to the region in terms of unparalleled opportunities for outdoor recreation, nature-based travel, and wilderness experience.
Recently, a small but influential group of farmers, business interests, and the state water development agency— the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, or ISC— have been advocating for construction of a large diversion on the Gila River. Authorized to capture an average of 14,000 acre-feet of water annually, or double the current withdrawals, this “new” water supply is intended to increase crop production and urbanization in the region. Up to $100 million in federal subsidies are available to New Mexico to plan and construct this project. A water development project of this magnitude could severely impact the Gila’s unique ecological and recreational values.
Analysis from a former ISC director demonstrated that the ISC’s Gila River diversion proposal is fatally flawed from an engineering standpoint and would likely cost two to three times more than current cost estimates of $300 million to $500 million, provided that the technical deficiencies of the proposal could actually be overcome.
However, economic and legal analyses support sustainable and less expensive alternatives to construction of a large diversion of this wild river. Cost-effective solutions, such as municipal and agricultural conservation, effluent reuse, sustainable use of existing groundwater supplies, and watershed restoration could meet the region’s future water needs quicker, easier, and cheaper than a diversion and pipeline project.
Under the Arizona Water Settlements Act, New Mexico can receive over half of the federal subsidy to implement non-diversion alternatives to meet the future water demand of the region. This approach would help maintain the flow of the river while saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in an unnecessary and ecologically destructive project.
When asked in a June 2013 poll which approach they would prefer to address the state’s water situation, New Mexico residents overwhelmingly supported alternatives to diversions. In fact, 85 percent of residents support using current water supplies more wisely, by continuing to conserve water, using new technology to help reduce wasted water, and increasing recycling of water.
What Must Be Done
By December 2014, New Mexico must notify the Secretary of Interior of its chosen approach— either diverting the Gila River or implementing non-diversion, water conservation and efficiency alternatives. The New Mexico ISC and Governor Susan Martinez must protect the Gila River to sustain local recreation and tourism-dependent economies, and ensure that the ISC considers and implements cheaper and more effective non-diversion alternatives to meet southwest New Mexico’s water supply needs.