The Southwestern New Mexico Audubon Society serves communities in four counties; Silver City, Deming, Lordsburg, Glenwood, Cliff, Reserve, the Mimbres Valley, and the Gila National Forest. Our Website offers information about:
- Activities, Programs, Field Trips, and Bird Counts
- Education, Conservation, Regional Habitat, and Audubon Membership
The future of the fauna that rely on crucial Gila River riparian habitats
is currently in the hands of nine men appointed by Governor Martinez to the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC). They will notify the US Department of the Interior by the end of this year if New Mexico will pursue a diversion of the Gila River using federal funds available under the Arizona Water Settlement Act (AWSA). This act, passed by Congress in 2004, guarantees at least $66 million for any project to meet water needs in the four counties of Southwest New Mexico. This can include projects that conserve water, improve agricultural or municipal infrastructure, reuse water or restore the Gila River watershed.
Gila River Important Bird Area (IBA)
, on Gila National Forest Service property, is a frequent destination for birding trips. Two other IBAs along the Gila River in New Mexico are:
One of the largest concentrations of breeding birds
- the Lower Gila Box IBA on BLM land north of Lordsburg and east of Virden
- the Upper Gila Box downstream to the Iron Bridge, designated the Cliff-Gila IBA
in the United States is dependent on these IBAs. Many rare species rely on this unique habitat including the Southwest Willow Flycatcher, western population of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Gila Woodpecker, Black Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Lucy's Warbler, and Summer Tanager. Several endangered aquatic species are also found here.
The Southwest Willow Flycatcher is on the endangered species list and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo has just been put on that list as a threatened species. The listing of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo specifically cited proposed water diversions as well as federal grazing policies as threats to the species.
More Money, More Pressure on the IBAs
An additional $38 million is available if a diversion structure is built to take water from the river and store it off-stream in side canyon reservoirs. The amount of water that could be legally diverted in any given year is subject to a number of factors. Any diverted water would cost New Mexico since it is actually owned by the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. They would have to be able to replace any diverted water with water from the Colorado River. We would pay for water that is diverted including any that evaporates or leaks into the ground in the reservoirs. Losses could be 30% or more.
The Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) performed an appraisal level engineering and economic analysis and concluded that the cost of diversion and storage exceeded any benefits by almost $700 million. More extensive studies by the BOR would be required if the state selects a diversion, including looking more closely at threats to endangered species.
Top university scientists from across New Mexico recently published a study coordinated by The Nature Conservancy and funded by the ISC - the study is available at nmconverservation.org
. They concluded that the amount of water available to divert would be much less than the ISC predicted. Furthermore, since diversion would only occur during snowmelt run-off and summer monsoons when the flow was 400-4000 cfs this would have the most harmful impact on the ecosystem. These flows along with big floods are essential for maintaining the riparian habitat that supports the high diversity of nesting and migratory birds along the Gila River.
Fatally Flawed Proposals
Norm Gaume, Former ISC director and professional engineer repeatedly told the ISC that the diversion proposals are fatally flawed. An independent engineering firm hired by the ISC, RJH Consultants, also warned the ISC of "potential fatal project flaws." Mr. Gaume with two other engineers has used historical flows on the Gila River for the past 77 years to model future flows. They concluded that, in most years, there will not be enough water available to legally divert. That was without even taking into account the effects of climate change on river flows due to reduced snowpack.
Mr. Gaume filed a lawsuit against the ISC for violations of the Open Meetings Act. This lawsuit alleges that the ISC conducted public business behind closed doors. The latest cost estimates by Mr. Gaume are that the cost of the proposed diversion would exceed $1 Billion. Who will pay the bill for this is an open question.
Southwestern New Mexico Audubon was founded 48 years ago to fight the Hooker dam that was proposed on the Gila River. We are still fighting to protect the Gila River's unique ecology and our IBAs. We urge our members to help also. Please contact the ISC, the Governor and your local elected officials. Tell them you don't want a diversion of the Gila River but instead want to see the available money used for alternative projects that will provide more benefits to local residents.There is not much time left to protect our IBAs