The western United States was settled with the help of big dams and river diversions that delivered distant water to burgeoning cities and farms, but at least one state is saying it’s time to shift gears.
In a resounding voice of support for river protection, 85 percent of New Mexico residents say they want officials to address the state’s water problems through conservation, recycling and wiser use of existing water supplies – not by diverting more water from the state’s rivers.
In a poll conducted this past June, the vast majority of New Mexicans said that rivers are critical to the state’s quality of life and economy, and want to protect them for future generations.
Nine-in-ten believe the state’s rivers are “at risk” at the present time.
When asked specifically about the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico, which in recent years has come under threats of a diversion to send water over the Continental Divide to cities and farms, 61 percent of respondents sided with the no-diversion stance once they were informed about the project’s details, while only 36% sided with the pro-diversion position.
A beautiful desert river that supports a rich diversity of birds and wildlife, the Gila (pronounced Hee-la) is the last undammed river in New Mexico and historically was a crucial tributary to the Colorado River. For millennia, the river emerged from what are now the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness areas, and flowed across southwestern New Mexico and through Arizona before emptying into the Colorado River at Yuma, near the U.S.-Mexican border.
Today, however, water users in Arizona take all of the Gila’s flow, leaving the river completely dry and delivering no water to the depleted Colorado.
On the New Mexico side of the border, however, the Gila is an ecological gem, supporting one of the healthiest cottonwood-willow riparian forests to be found in the desert southwest, as well as a variety of threatened and endangered species.
This past summer, scientists working along the Gila discovered several northern Mexican gartersnakes – a candidate for federal listing as endangered and, until this find, believed by many to be extirpated from New Mexico.
During the polling, the more New Mexicans learned about the proposed Gila diversion, which would siphon as much as 14,000 acre-feet (4.56 billion gallons) a year from the river, the more strongly they opposed it.
While the federal government would subsidize a portion of the diversion project, which emerged in response to the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA), New Mexico’s taxpayers and water users would be saddled with some two-thirds of the estimated $300 million cost to build the pipeline.
On top of that, the Act requires New Mexico to pay Arizona for any Gila water it diverts. That’s because the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona owns that water, and New Mexico would have to pay Arizona to deliver replacement supplies.
As a clincher, the AWSA provides $66 million for community water projects to help meet local water needs in southwestern New Mexico. These funds could be used to invest in urban and agricultural conservation measures, sustainable groundwater use and other solutions that make better use of local water supplies – and would cost far less than the diversion project.
Historically, big water decisions have been made in an authoritarian, top-down manner, often with little involvement or say from the public.
Thanks to this poll – which was commissioned by Protect the Flows, a network of nearly 900 businesses in the seven states of the Colorado River Basin, and conducted by the market research firm Public Opinion Strategies – the voice of the people has been brought into the debate.
The state of New Mexico must notify the U.S. Secretary of the Interior by December 2014 as to whether or not it will divert Gila River water.
Hopefully, state officials will heed the public’s wishes for more cost-effective and environmentally sound water alternatives – and keep the Gila River flowing strong.
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.