“A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.” Edward Abbey penned those words in the late '60s but the warnings and worries of the few have done nothing to stop the caustic motion of so-called progress in the desert West. This is evidenced most recently in the blind insistence of local governing bodies on the diversion of the Gila River. The Gila River—the last wild river in New Mexico—cuts canyons into high wilderness lands, revitalizes floodplains, adds a ribbon of green to the Cliff-Gila Valley and provides a home for some of the Southwest's most threatened and endangered species of bird and fish, seven in total. Despite being a low-volume river, even by Southwestern standards, the cottonwood and black walnut stands that line the river's banks support our country's diminishing yellow-billed cuckoo and Southwestern willow flycatcher populations and the shallow, but freely flowing waters provide habitat and spawning grounds for the federally endangered loach minnow and spikedace. What's more, the unimpeded beauty of the Gila Wilderness—the nation's first designated wilderness area—and the areas surrounding it are the wild, the spare, the original that Abbey is talking about. Water issues in the West are never straightforward, wherever water runs free, someone will seek to capture it, but to employ another Abbey quote, “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
There is little to suggest that diverting the Gila River is the wisest course of action to supply water to the southwestern corner of New Mexico at this time, instead it seems a desperate attempt to stake a claim on the river's waters before someone else (we're looking at you, Arizona) beats us to it. For over a decade, people have been fighting over how to use the funds given to New Mexico by the federal government in 2004's Arizona Water Settlements Act, which provides the state with $100 million to improve the region's water supply. Nevermind that the project will cost considerably more than that—estimates range from $300 million to as much as $1 billion—and that it has yet to be established who will foot the bill for the remaining costs. Residents of Deming, the area's biggest city, could see a spike in their water bills of as much as $155 per household, which may seem reasonable to some for a highly valuable resource until you consider the fact that diversion could supply southwestern New Mexico with literally no water. The expected seepage and evaporation losses garnered in the extraction process could lead to 0% of the allotted 14,000 acre-feet of water being harnessed. Because of the sharp peaks and valleys in the river's flows, which are natural and sustain it's delicate ecosystem, there would likely be some years when no water could be legally diverted, and a study conducted by the Nature Conservancy indicates that as climate change progresses, by 2050 the overall yield of the river will decrease by six percent.
Norm Gaume, former director of the Interstate Stream Commission—the decision-making body that designates where the federal funds of the AWSA will go—opposes the diversion. He told High Country News early on in discussions of the diversion, “It's like religion. People aren't rational about water development.” Yet, as plans for a diversion soldier onward despite the fiscal and environmental irresponsibility that comes with them, the exact plans for the diversion, which are coordinated by the New Mexico Unit of the Central Arizona Project Entity, have been remarkably obscure.
It's one of the West's oldest and most stubborn issues—where to find the water that sustains the cities we've built here. In the controversy surrounding the diversion of New Mexico's last free-flowing river, new conservation ideals are pitted against the old-fashioned ethos of the quickly drying desert. These two convictions locking horns with one another speak to the pains of expansion across the West, and the injury to nature that has often defined that corrosive process. Yet, lining what seems to be a downward spiral of overreach and oversight, are alternatives that could provide the necessary water to southwestern New Mexico with a fraction of the negative impacts of the diversion. Alternatives include lining irrigation ditches to eliminate water lost to seepage, new wells for groundwater, municipal conservation efforts and recycling wastewater. In a drying region, the opportunity to grab water is precious, but so is the responsibility of doing so judiciously, with respect for the quickly diminishing wilderness on which we rely.