Sent by Terry Timme, Southwestern New Mexico Audubon Society


Philip Connors

When Aldo Leopold first came to the Southwest as a forest ranger in 1909, there were six mountainous areas in New Mexico and Arizona with more than half a million largely untracked acres at their core. A decade later all but one — the headwaters of the Gila River — had been fragmented by roads.

It was a moment of reckoning in our treatment of wild places, and Leopold seized the chance to advocate for preserving a last large remnant of our natural heritage in the Southwest. His vision helped keep the Gila headwaters primeval in perpetuity — the Gila Wilderness, the first such set aside in the world, remains off limits to roads, tourist developments and all things motorized and mechanized.

Emerging from half a dozen mountain ranges up against the Continental Divide, the Upper Gila (pronounced HEE-la) River runs through canyons and arid forest surrounded by high desert. After leaving the Gila Wilderness, it meanders through an agricultural valley, where small-scale diversions draw from the river for pasture lands. Then it plunges once more through steep-walled canyons in what locals call the Middle Box. It doesn’t meet its first immovable obstacle until Coolidge Dam, far down in the desert of Arizona, beyond which the Lower Gila can’t really be called a river at all.

The wild character of the Upper Gila could soon change, however, now that the state of New Mexico is pushing for a diversion dam to be built there. In 2004, in the horse-trading accompanying a complex piece of legislation called the Arizona Water Settlements Act, Congress authorized $66 million for any project that met a water need in southwest New Mexico. The deal included an additional amount up to $62 million specifically contingent on building a new Gila dam. That promise of extra money has skewed the incentives away from cost-effective water conservation efforts and toward a Bureau of Reclamation boondoggle.

We should honor the legacy of Aldo Leopold and allow the Upper Gila to go about the ancient business of simply being a river.

And a boondoggle it most certainly would be. Upper Gila diversion-dam proponents first called for a billion-dollar scheme to pump water over the Continental Divide into another river basin entirely, with the cost differential covered by parties unknown. Then they scaled back their wish list to a multiphase project that would still cost hundreds of millions of dollar to fully construct and more than $1 million a year to operate and maintain.

The goal, stated baldly by dam proponents, is to do whatever it takes to prevent Gila River water from crossing the state line to Arizona. New Mexico officials have long cultivated the idea that the state was stiffed in the water wars of the 20th century. Now it’s payback time, with the Upper Gila headed for a sacrificial altar to settle old scores.

Those of us who love wild rivers — who enjoy boating on them, fishing in them and birding along their banks — fail to see how this would be beneficial to anyone aside from a hundred or so farmers and the international mining company Freeport-McMoRan, which, as the largest landowner in the valley below the proposed diversion dam, rents land to some of those farmers.

And for those minimal benefits, the costs — to the river’s ecology as well as taxpayers’ pocketbooks — would be enormous.

The Upper Gila watershed is home to seven threatened or endangered species of birds, snakes, frogs and fish. With a diversion dam stealing water from the river, it would no longer see the natural pulses of energy and nutrients that reshape the floodplain and rejuvenate niche habitats crucial to those creatures’ survival. Its days as a living river in New Mexico would be over.

That the Upper Gila is the last wild river in the state — and one of the last wild watersheds in the West — appears not to trouble those pushing a new diversion dam. But I suspect it would trouble the godfather of the Gila Wilderness, Aldo Leopold.

Once again, the Gila represents the last of something valuable. Every other main-stem river in New Mexico is subdued by human infrastructure, put to use for drinking water or for growing pecans, green chiles and alfalfa. The state’s most storied river, the Rio Grande, diverted end to end for human use, is often a desiccated swath of sand in long stretches across its middle. That stands in stark contrast with the Upper Gila, where even the engineers who prepared the preliminary diversion-dam report acknowledge the river’s “wild and scenic” nature.

Industrial-size threats to what’s left of our natural inheritance are a whack-a-mole phenomenon. David Brower, the founder of the Sierra Club, liked to say that “the extractive interests — the miners and loggers and dam builders — only have to win once. We have to win every time.”

Advocates for a wild Upper Gila River have beaten back numerous proposals to dam it over the last 100 years. Miraculously, this stretch of river still runs as high and fast as snowmelt and rainfall dictate. The only predictable thing about it is its unpredictability, from roaring flood to summertime trickle. Its extreme variability adds to its uniqueness among Western rivers, and accounts for its healthy and resilient riparian ecosystem.

New Mexico has already conducted years of public meetings on the diversion dam, and spent $12 million largely on the work of consultants, lawyers and engineers. An additional $17 million will go to conducting a challenging environmental review of the latest proposal. It’s not too late to end this folly and steer available money to commonsense water projects. We should honor the legacy of Aldo Leopold and allow the Upper Gila to go about the ancient business of simply being a river.

Philip Connors is the author of “Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout.” His new book, “A Song for the River,” will be published next year.

Live from Silver City

Join GCB Three Times Weekly Updates

Welcome to Three Times Weekly Updates! You will be subscribed to email notifications with links to recently posted articles.
You can unsubscribe anytime. We never share or rent your email to anyone.

Fire Alerts

Editor's Note

The Grant county Beat continues to bring you new columnists. New this past week are the Christian Corner, for those who are already Christians or are exploring the beliefs.

The second is a business-centered column—Your Business Connection by the New Mexico Business Coalition. The group works to make policy in the state of New Mexico better for all businesses, large and small.

The Beat has a new column for you gardeners out there. The Grant County Extension Service will bring you monthly columns on gardening issues. The first one posted is on Winterizing your houseplants and patio plants.

The Beat totally appreciates its readers!  


All articles and photos indicated by a byline are copyrighted to the author or photographer. You may not use any information found within the articles without asking permission AND giving attribution to the source. Photos can be requested and may incur a nominal fee for use personally or commercially.

Don't forget to tell advertisers that you saw their ad on the Beat.

Feel free to notify editor@grantcountybeat.com, if you notice any problems on the site. Your convenience is my desire for the Beat.

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

If you subscribe to the Join GCB Three Times Weekly Updates option on the left side of this page, you will be subscribed to email notifications with links to recently posted articles.

Note: This is another component that is in progress of going to a different software to make it easier for you to use and find classifieds that interest you. Check Out Classifieds. And look at Sponsors to see who is helping the Beat.

It's really easy to check to see if there's a classified ad. Just click on Classifieds in the blue menu and the page will open letting you know if there is a classified ad. Remember that your buying classified ads gives you a wide readership, as well as supporting the Beat. Post YOURS for quick results!

Note that if an article does not have a byline, it was sent to the Beat and written by someone not affiliated with the Beat

When you click on the blue and orange button on the upper left side of most pages, you will find out how you can help the Beat defray its expenses, which, with increased readership, continue to grow. You will arrive at a page that gives you options of how you can Help the Beat. All help is greatly appreciated and keeps the news you want and need coming into your browser.

Consider the Beat your DAILY newspaper for up-to-date information about Grant County. It's at your fingertips! One Click to Local News.

Thanks for your support for and your readership of Grant County's online news source—www.grantcountybeat.com