Environmentalists, business owners and sportsmen cheered after a victory in protecting the state’s last free-flowing river. Grant County Commissioners voted to adopt a resolution last week to support protecting portions of the Gila and San Francisco rivers and tributaries under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 establishes protections for free-flowing waterways in the U.S. The designation protects rivers that offer “outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values” by preserving them and prohibiting further development in the area. Rivers or portions of rivers can be designated wild and scenic through legislation, or through the U.S. Department of Interior.
“A wild and scenic river designation is the highest form of protection for a river,” Joey Keefe, communications coordinator for New Mexico Wild, told NM Political Report. “This proposal would protect various segments of the Gila and San Francisco rivers in their current free-flowing state — the completely undammed, undeveloped parts of the river are what we’re looking at and trying to protect those segments for future generations.”
The resolution was the result of grassroots efforts by the Gila River Wild and Scenic Coalition to protect the Gila River. The coalition is a diverse group of stakeholders in Grant County, including tribes, sportsmen, business owners, environmentalists and local governments.
“The communities within Grant County are very important to this effort,” Keefe said. “We have 150 businesses, several organizations, property owners in Grant County who really want to see this designation happen.”
The coalition proposed protecting 436 miles of the Gila and San Francisco Rivers and their tributaries, which comprise one of the largest undammed watersheds left in the continental U.S., from future development.
The county commission vote itself doesn’t have any impact on the rivers’ designations, but Keefe said it does send a strong signal to Washington.
“The Grant County resolution is a very big step,” he said. “It signals to our U.S. senators that the local communities really want this to happen.”
The coalition is now calling on New Mexico’s U.S. Senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, to introduce legislation to designate the proposed segments of the river as wild and scenic.
One of the last free-flowing watersheds in the lower 48
Free-flowing rivers that are not obstructed by dams, diversions, bridges or other human-made infrastructure are becoming increasingly rare on the planet. They are also considered crucial components of ecological systems, refreshing groundwater stores and offering habitat to support biodiversity.
Today, only a third of the world’s rivers are considered free-flowing, according to a first-of-its-kind 2019 study published in Nature. The authors pointed to economic activity and development as the main driver of river obstruction, but also warned that climate change will exacerbate the problem.
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Drought and water rights issues are of special concern in New Mexico, where the majority of the state’s waterways are seasonal, and water levels across state rivers have dropped due to ongoing drought, increasing populations and increasingly complex water rights settlements.
The Gila River, which begins in the Gila Wilderness and flows southwest across the border into Arizona, is considered a jewel of the state’s remaining wilderness. It is also considered the most endangered river in the country by some conservation groups.
“The Gila River itself, on the New Mexico side of the New Mexico-Arizona border, is completely free-flowing,” Keefe said. “It’s the last completely free-flowing river in New Mexico. That’s why this is such a big deal.”
Only 0.01 percent of New Mexico’s waterways are currently protected under the wild and scenic designation, including sections of the Rio Grande and the Chama River.
“Every other river that people love to visit in New Mexico — whether it’s’ the Rio Grande, or the Chama, or the Pecos — none of those are completely free-flowing at this point,” he added. “This wild and scenic designation would essentially keep our completely wild river wild.”
Diversion plan may impact free-flowing status
While residents have worked to protect portions of the Gila River and San Francisco tributary, the state has been grappling with a proposed diversion plan for the river that could spell an end to some of those free-flowing waters.
The controversial plan has been in the works for years without much progress. After a series of revisions, the latest proposal calls for the waters of the Gila River to be diverted by a 155-foot concrete weir wall three-and-a-half miles downstream from where the river runs out of the Gila Wilderness.
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The state still plans to go forward with the diversion, despite the fact that the deadline to apply for federal funding for the project is December 31, 2019. New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity (NMCAP) executive director Anthony Gutierrez and lawyer Pete Domenici Jr. plan to travel to Washington D.C. in October to ask the Department of Interior for an extension to file the necessary environmental impact statements on the project.
If the diversion plan ever comes to fruition, it would impact the free-flowing status of two segments of river proposed for wild and scenic protections. The rest of the proposed segments are upstream from the proposed diversion plan and would not be impacted by it.
The coalition says it’s now up to New Mexico’s congressional delegation to introduce legislation to extend wild and scenic protections to the Gila and San Francisco rivers and tributaries.
Keefe described Senators Udall and Heinrich as “champions of public land protections” and said he’s hopeful legislation will appear this fall.
“Both of our U.S. Senators have expressed interest in protecting the Gila river through a wild and scenic designation,” Keefe said. “We expect there to be some form of legislation introduced, hopefully sooner rather than later.”
Udall and Heinrich have also both voiced opposition to the Gila River diversion plan.
Earlier this summer, Sen. Udall said the diversion plan “simply isn’t environmentally sound or financially realistic,” while Sen. Heinrich warned that “any major diversion project would threaten the natural upper Gila River and tributaries like the San Francisco,” in an op-ed that ran in NM Political Report.
“Simply put, no diversion proposals have come close to demonstrating engineering, economic, or ecological viability,” he said.