From American Rivers (Sinjin Eberle):
In a major victory for one of the Southwest’s last major free flowing rivers, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission voted 7-2 on Friday to end work on the Environmental Impact Statement for the Gila River diversion. The threat of the diversion spurred American Rivers to name the Gila America’s Most Endangered River® of 2019.
“This is a resounding victory for last year’s Most Endangered River and one of New Mexico’s greatest natural treasures. We applaud our partners for their years of work and the Interstate Stream Commission for recognizing the value of the free-flowing Gila River,” said Bob Irvin, President and CEO of American Rivers.
The Gila River Diversion has long been a contentious, wasteful proposal, that would have devastated New Mexico’s last major wild river. Partners including the Gila River Indian Community, Gila Conservation Coalition, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance and Center for Biological Diversity have been vital to the effort to stop the diversion.
Flowing out of the nation’s first Wilderness Area, the Gila River supports outstanding examples of southwestern riparian forest, cold-water fisheries and a remarkable abundance of wildlife. The Gila River is important to Indigenous peoples who have lived in southwestern New Mexico for thousands of years. Many cultural sites are found along the Gila River and throughout the watershed.
“Our people have lived on the banks of the Gila River in Arizona for thousands of years, and we have watched our River dwindle through overuse in the Upper Valley,” said Governor Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, located in Arizona on the banks of the Gila River. “We have known for decades that our River is in danger, so we were pleased to partner with American Rivers in the fight to protect the River. The action by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission to end funding for the proposed Gila River diversion is a significant victory in our common fight to protect the Keli Akimel, as we call the River in our language. Hopefully, with this decision, we can put this wasteful proposal behind us for good. Our fight to protect the Gila will never be over, but this is a resounding victory and I want to thank our partner, American Rivers, for all their hard work in helping to bring this about.”
The diversion could have dried up the Gila River, impacting fish and wildlife and the local outdoor recreation and tourism economy. The diversions and infrastructure would have harmed critical habitat for seven threatened or endangered species. Declining groundwater levels caused by the diversion and new groundwater pumping would have threatened the cottonwood-sycamore-willow bosque, some of the last remaining intact riparian forest in the Lower Colorado River Basin.
Now that the diversion proposal is dead, the commission will have the opportunity to re-allocate nearly $70 million to more river-friendly, shovel-ready, local water supply projects benefitting tens of thousands of residents across Southwestern New Mexico, including infrastructure improvements in Deming, Lordsburg, Silver City, and greater Grant County.