October 7, 2019

More water or more wild: The decades-long struggle over the Gila River’s fate

Laura Paskus

Gila River near Turkey Creek in New Mexico

This story was published in collaboration with Bitterroot, an online magazine about the politics, economy, culture, and environment of the West.

On the sunny afternoon decades ago when M.H. “Dutch” Salmon first set eyes on the Gila River, he was not impressed. “This was no river,” he would later write. “It was a stream, and standing on the bank, I could see that if you picked out a riffle, you could cross on foot without wetting your knees.” Rivers he knew growing up in the East could float freighters. “This Gila,” he wrote, “would ground a canoe.”

Indeed, the Gila where Salmon first saw it runs shallow and warm in the summer. It moseys through southwestern New Mexico, passing cottonwood trunks too big to wrap arms around and curtains of willows that shield its bends from view as it strolls toward its confluence with the Colorado River in Yuma, Arizona. It can be tough to see, at least at first, the current that would reshape a man’s life and spark debate about water and wild places in the West.

Salmon hiked upstream that Sunday afternoon, into canyons “that looked just as nature made them — a changing array of reds and pinks and grays and blacks as the sun turned over scattered clouds and alternately lit and shaded a thousand feet of precipitous cline.” Here, he’d been told, a dam was coming. Better get a good look now before it was gone. Near where the Bureau of Reclamation had planned to pack all that concrete, he lingered until evening, testing his skills as an angler against smallmouth bass. He spotted bighorn sheep, herons, and the high water line marked by detritus caught in the branches of a sycamore tree, 10 feet above his head. What was this place? He wrote: “Now there was more to this Gila River than I could imagine.” 

That was 1983. The dam in question was Connor Dam, one of four major efforts to dam or divert New Mexico’s section of the Gila since the 1960s. But to this day, the upper Gila still runs free. Most of the plans withered under questionable economics, local opposition, and threats to endangered species —  and, in part, because of Salmon. His love of the river born on that 1983 afternoon led him to co-found the Gila Conservation Coalition. He was a fixture at committee meetings, served on myriad boards and councils, and waded the bureaucratic channels to preserve the river. His Gila obsession was manifest, though, in his writing. He wrote, printed, and sold books about the river and the Southwestern landscape around it, hoping to spark in others the desire to protect wildlands. 

One proposal, however, a diversion to run more water to farms in the Cliff-Gila Valley, has persisted to this year, and the deadline for its review by the Bureau of Reclamation is looming. Opponents argue the diversion will reduce the Gila from a trickle to a dry streambed, as it is in Arizona, where Phoenix and Tucson siphon so much water the Gila runs dry for nearly 300 miles. But there’s staying power to the notion that with a diversion will come more opportunity, more investors, more entrepreneurs, more business — plus more security in the face of climate change. 

After all, arid Western cities and towns need more water. And diversion boosters say the water can be stored and utilized without significantly compromising river ecology. Plus, once that unencumbered New Mexico Gila water crosses the state border, Arizona uses it up anyway. Might as well get your fair share.

Both sides come back to the same point: This work is about what to leave the next generation. Those fighting for a free-flowing Gila, though, are doing so, for the first time in decades, without Salmon, who died in March at age 73 after a bout of pneumonia. His death came at a moment when it seemed the combined forces of Gila advocates’ work and a shifting political climate would put an end, at last, to the battle that he fought for half a lifetime. What happens this year could secure the fate of the river as forever wild, or forever changed. It’s a choice about what the next generation will need most: more water, or more wild.

One of the best things about Dutch Salmon, his friends say, was that he could talk to anyone. Sure enough, when he passed, the people who showed up to pay their respects ran every shade of plaid and every political stripe. 

“The spectrum of people was about as wide as it gets,” said Todd Schulke, who co-founded the Center for Biological Diversity. “Anything you could say about a good friend, Dutch was.”

Born and raised in upstate New York, Salmon moved progressively west, first to Michigan, then to San Antonio, where he taught school for a couple years before relocating again, to Minnesota. There, writing and the outdoors took a firmer hold on his life. He landed in New Mexico in 1981. 

Salmon had an amiable way of getting his talking points across without wielding them like a hammer. He could connect with anybody: Here was a deeply committed conservationist, but also a self-proclaimed redneck. A man who loved his wild Gila River, but who also enjoyed reservoir fishing. He ran hounds to hunt bears. He ate what he caught. He restarted last night’s campfire by fanning the coals with his Stetson. He liked places that made you a little more honest, and so he loved the Gila.

The Gila River pours from its namesake wilderness area, its path dictated by rock walls before it fans out over polished stones where the canyons relent. It threads downed trees and churns past hot springs. Nothing out here competes with the moon and stars, so the Milky Way runs its own strong current across the night sky. 

Hike the surrounding plateaus covered in pine trunks blackened by wildfires and knots of pinyon and juniper, and the river is invisible. “The one thing about the Gila is that you can’t really see it until you’re on it,” said Cherie Salmon, Dutch’s widow. “Once you get down in the canyons, you get the real flavor of it, and it’s those very canyons where, if you dam a river, they’re gone.”

In 1968, the bill that authorized the Central Arizona Project, which today funnels Colorado River water to Phoenix and surrounding areas, also permitted New Mexico to pull 18,000 acre-feet of Gila water. The first proposal was the Hooker Dam, which was to sit just inside the Gila National Forest boundary and would have backed up the river into the Gila Wilderness. Conservationists were aghast at the idea of the country’s first wilderness area, set aside in 1924, being violated with a reservoir. They were offered a string of buoys across the water to mark the wilderness boundary so motorboats wouldn’t cross it. People were unappeased. The dam idea languished another 14 years, then died.

But the bill authorizing it allowed for the Hooker “or suitable alternative.” “That ‘suitable alternative’ language was really critical, and haunts us to this day,” Schulke said. Next up, in the 1980s, was the Connor Dam proposal to pour concrete 20 miles downstream, in Middle Box Canyon. 

The impact of a dam can be difficult to comprehend. So while Connor was still being debated (some locals, Salmon included, spelled it “Conner”), Salmon packed up and started for the headwaters of the Gila River, beginning a 200-mile journey from its highest tributaries and ending in Arizona. At some point, he swapped his hiking boots for a canoe, and added to the load both his dog Rojo and a nameless tomcat, who’d been water-tested when Salmon plunged the cat into a reservoir and raced him back to shore. 

Salmon wrote a book about the trip, Gila Descending, and published it himself in 1986. The first run of 2,000 copies was assembled by hand over beers with his friends; an imperfect press occasionally inserted a blank sheet among the 200 pages. This marked the start of High Lonesome Books, the publishing company headquartered on Dutch and Cherie’s 12 acres outside Silver City. From there, Salmon produced and sold a stream of books about the Southwest and its mountain men, tribes, mining claims, and hound dogs.

In Gila Descending, Salmon found himself writing about not necessarily a wild river, but a wild stretch of one: before it runs mostly dry between the Coolidge Dam, east of Phoenix, and its termination near Yuma. “Put in perspective,” he wrote, “those of us who oppose the Conner Dam, or any other new dam on the Gila, are hoping to preserve in its natural state just one river out of six [in New Mexico], and merely one fifth of that river.

“Proponents of the Conner Dam (among whom, I must say with respect, are some friends of mine) have said: ‘You conservationists are going to have to give something up for the common good,’” he continued. “From the point of view of conservation, there is virtually nothing left to give up.”

Connor Dam proponents found intractable reviews from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and New Mexico Game and Fish Department, who came to the defense of several endangered species: fish, snakes, birds, and a frog. Their habitat would have been drowned. Coupled with the dam’s costs, and the possibility it would have flooded farmland, the Connor proposal was toast.  

Salmon’s fight for the river took many forms, but most often saving the river to him meant writing about it in books and local newspapers. A suckerfish he reeled in had “great spirit that he shared with me.” Of the Gila’s trout: “A flamboyant God painted the wild rainbow and the wild brook trout; a more subtle artist conceived the lovely brown.” Salmon sang their praises even though the trout often eluded him (he assessed his fishing as “high on enthusiasm and low on skill”) and wildlife managers considered how to eradicate those invasive fish, which were outcompeting the endangered Gila trout. His tone was effortlessly conversational, a fluid relay of events with the occasional meander into distracted eddies.

“He thought that was the way to save it,” Cherie said of Dutch’s stories. “Nobody who loves the river can want to take off, what was it, [18,000] acre-feet a year, and denude it or dam it so most of it is lost. … Some years you couldn’t even get it, and other years it would just make it a muddy rivulet coming out of the mountains, so what a waste that would be.”

Spilling ink wasn’t Salmon’s lone tactic, though. In 1984, he co-founded the Gila Conservation Coalition, of which he was chair until he died. He also served stints on the Interstate Stream Commission, originator of many Gila River dam and diversion plans, as well as the New Mexico Wilderness Coalition (today the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance), New Mexico Wildlife Federation, and the Quivira Coalition, which is dedicated to sustainable ranching. He waded through white papers and public comment periods. As noted in his obituary in the Silver City Daily Press, for which he wrote a column for six years, Salmon received accolades from the Gila Natural History Symposium, Conservation Voters of New Mexico, and New Mexico Community Foundation. 

His commitment to the river lasted to his death, as did plans for diversion. The latest plan to secure New Mexico’s share of Central Arizona Project water is to dig a series of irrigation ditches and a diversion dam to take the first 4,000-acre-foot slice of the river for farms, a proposal that has reignited a debate Salmon timelessly described in the pages of Gila Descending: “The Gila is the last mainstem, free-flowing river in New Mexico. … I like to fish Elephant Butte Lake myself and green irrigated fields are an antidote to urban blight — but when you’re down to your last river, and they have plans for it, you realize it’s time to draw the line.”

On a Tuesday in early September, blue jeans, button-up shirts, and cowboy boots abounded at the Grant County Administration Center in Silver City. The occasion was a meeting of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, the organization working to secure the additional Gila water allocated to the state in the 1968 Central Arizona Project legislation. Two people stood for the public comment period that kicks off the meeting, both voicing objections to the money being spent on a diversion when it could be funneled to projects that improve water efficiency and conservation. 

Entity chair Darr Shannon had a simple counter: “If we’re not allowed to divert some of this water, then Arizona continues to get it all, and they become wealthier and wealthier as time goes by.” 

The current framework stems from the federal 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act, which for the first time allocated money for any diversion or storage project to serve the 60,000 people in four rural counties in southwestern New Mexico. It also adjusted New Mexico’s share to 14,000 acre-feet of water (if downstream commitments to the Gila River Indian Community are met), a figure lower than the original 1968 allocation, but still a significant increase to what farmers are currently able to funnel off the river for irrigation via homemade dams. The state was promised $100 million from the federal government — two-thirds of it for water conservation projects, and one-third for the construction of a diversion. 

Since New Mexico was first allocated its share of Gila water in 1968, some 900,000 acre-feet of water entitled to southwest New Mexico has run downstream to Arizona, Vance Lee, vice chair of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, told the state legislative finance committee last September.

“At a time when other regions of the state are struggling to get enough water to meet their needs and in consideration of potential future needs of water in our arid southwest corner of the state, it only takes a little common sense to realize that, if we have the available water and we have the funds to develop it, that we keep every legally available drop of water in New Mexico,” the bullet points of Lee’s comments to the state finance committee read. (Multiple members of New Mexico CAP entity, including executive director Anthony Gutierrez, declined requests for an interview.)

Roughly $14 million of the $66 million the feds initially allocated for water conservation projects has been spent on planning the diversion. If New Mexico were freed from pursuing a diversion, the rest of that money could be spent on other water conservation projects to serve broader swaths of the region, rather than just the cluster of farmers near the river. But in that case, the state would forgo the $34 million originally earmarked for diversion construction.

Per the 2004 legislation, the Bureau of Reclamation must sign off on a diversion plan by the end of 2019, but the Entity’s legal counsel, Pete Domenici, Jr. — whose father ushered the Arizona Water Settlements Act as a U.S. senator for New Mexico — has asked Reclamation for an extension. As late as July, in the midst of the environmental reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act, the plan was still shifting, shedding storage ponds and small dams. 

“My opinion is, we’ve got to have control of our own destiny, and control of the water,” said Joe Runyan, who serves on the CAP Entity and runs a farm at the end of one of the ditches the diversion would feed. Then, he said, “when we go to the table with the rest of the people on the Colorado River, we’ve got a little leverage.”

If New Mexico had access to more water, maybe that would bring growth to this sleepy valley, the thinking of diversion proponents goes. And, while the first 4,000 acre-feet diverted from the river would go to farmers, the remaining 10,000 could go to municipalities or industry. 

“I just think it’s a pretty good idea,” Runyan said of the diversion. “To me it would be totally irresponsible to deny the future generation in New Mexico access to that 14,000 acre-feet.”

Look southwest from a promontory at the edge of the Mogollon Mountains, and the Gila River lays down a dense ribbon of cottonwoods, their emerald color bleeding into the surrounding irrigated fields and pastures spotted with cattle, horses, and, occasionally, goats. That shade fades out to tan hills knotted with mesquite, pinyon, and yucca topped with towering blossoms. The river supplies agricultural fields, the lifeblood for small farming communities that don’t seem to have a tighter hold on the place than by their fingernails. The towns of Cliff and Gila consist of a few loosely clustered houses, a gift shop, a post office, and a café. 

I was observing this scene with Schulke and Allyson Siwik, the Gila Conservation Coalition’s executive director. The pair donned broad-brimmed hats and lightweight, pale, long-sleeved shirts — standard-issue defense against the desert sun — and narrated the landscape. On the far horizon, where the Gila River drops into the Middle Box, is where the Connor Dam would have flooded habitat for some 300 species of birds on a list of boggling biodiversity where the mountains meet desert. The ditches through the floodplain are rimmed in green, a corridor of habitat for the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo. Cuckoos spend winter in Central or South America, but have such fidelity to their nest sites that a single pair was tracked returning to the same tree by the river in repeat years. Where the river flattens and slows into riffles, loach minnow like to tuck in. The Gila trout seeks out the bubblier, faster moving sections.

“This area is the only place in the Lower Colorado River Basin that still has its full complement of native fish,” Siwik said.

Some of the river’s bends, even from miles away, are visibly dry. That’s in part because the monsoon that typically refills it in the mid-summer months has been absent, but also because of  “push-up” dams farmers create by bulldozing small earthen walls in the river. The proposed diversion would replace these mud and rock dams, which the river eventually breaks down, with concrete, and take from one spot four times as much water as what’s currently withdrawn in three push-up dams. Taking more water from one place, Schulke and Siwik worry, would increase both the length of dry stretches and their duration, which could devastate aquatic and riparian species and the rest of an ecosystem that relies on flooding rivers to recharge nutrients and groundwater and sprout seeds.

Looking upstream from that same ridge, the Gila River vanishes into peaks where ponderosas shade clusters of lupine and penstemon. Up there, the Gila’s no placid irrigator — it’s a wild mountain river whose rapids form a 40-mile classic stretch of whitewater. That’s if you can catch it; some years, the river is runnable by raft, kayak, or canoe for just a few days during spring snowmelt, then maybe again in late summer or early fall if the monsoon comes. Search and rescue crews are routinely called by stranded hikers who underestimate the swiftness and depth of the water, the steepness of the cliffs around it, and the remoteness of their undertakings in a national forest that covers 3.3 million acres, 792,584 of which are federally designated wilderness. 

“If nothing else, we’ve kept them out of this stretch of the river,” Schulke said. 

With the canyons safe from a dam, the fight now is less about the landscape and more about the water itself. The cropland the diverted water would reach currently grows pasture grass, a low-cost, drought-tolerant, low-maintenance crop. Whether any farmers in the valley could afford to purchase water made available through the diversion, however, trends toward speculation. That’s in part because the water doesn’t come free and clear: For every acre-foot of Gila water New Mexico diverts, the state would have to pay Arizona to purchase a corresponding amount of Colorado River water. 

With the water, though, might come entrepreneurs, people who want to build greenhouses and grow produce. Runyan, the farmer on the CAP Entity committee, said that among the 10 farmers on the Gila Farm Irrigation Association, he’s “heard from some members” that they would plant additional winter crops, including winter wheat, oats, peas, turnips or garlic. 

But if farmers switch to high-value crops to cover the cost of more expensive water, those crops would rely on a constant supply of water, and former Interstate Stream Commission chair and career engineer Norman Gaume said that’s not a guarantee. During eight of the last 81 years, he said, there wouldn’t have been enough water in the Gila to divert. In short, he said, “the [environmental impact statement] says there’s dependable water, but there’s not.”

Climate change has already reduced winter snowpack that feeds this river, and research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that, perhaps as early as mid-century, the Gila will cease to be a snowpack-fed river.

“The desert mountain areas of the Southwest are ground zero for climate change, and the Gila is evidence of that,” said Sinjin Eberle, communications director and executive producer with American Rivers, which named the Gila the most endangered river of 2019 due to the diversion proposal. “How I think about it is, do we have to dam and divert every river that we have, and do we have to dam and divert every tributary that we have, just because it happens to be wild? … The Gila is too valuable to continue slicing away at it.”

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced during her campaign last year she planned to abandon the diversion, and vetoed state funding for it. But the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity has enough federal funds to continue its work, and the state’s members of the Interstate Stream Commission have not yet moved to halt the diversion. If the diversion proceeds, Eberle said, it would be met with a legal challenge. 

Just 37 percent of the 246 longest rivers in the world flow freely their entire length, and most of those are confined to the remote regions of the Arctic, Amazon, and Congo basins, according to research published earlier this year in Nature. Only 23 percent of those run without impediment all the way to the ocean. 

Dams and reservoirs are largely responsible for the interruptions, and those blockages mean the rivers no longer support a host of species that evolved around their natural flows. They don’t resupply groundwater or sediment in the same way. They don’t even run the same temperature they once did. Those effects ripple out into the surrounding environment, including to humans who depend on what a river can supply in the way of food and water.

In the western United States, a rare few show what a river can do when left to its own: the Yellowstone in Montana, the John Day in Oregon, all three forks of the Salmon in Idaho, and the Yampa in Colorado. The Yampa came perilously close to a dam during the 1950s. But still, on spring days after a snowy winter, you can paddle down the dam-moderated and appropriately emerald Green River into Echo Park, where the Yampa comes in strong, its surge seeming to shove the Green’s water back upstream. Progress slows to a drift as the muddy Yampa water appears like blossoms underneath the clearer Green’s flows.

What we are beginning to understand is that ecosystems work like tapestries, and that losing one river is like pulling at a thread. It can unravel the whole system, taking with it a curtain filled with birds, insects, fish, frogs, snakes, coatis, wolves, coyotes, and jaguars. That the native fish remain in the Gila river is testament to this particular weave holding, and that here, the systems still function largely as they have for thousands of years, which is rare enough to consider guarding well, or so goes the point Salmon and the advocates he mentored have long been making.

“Places with water are so rare—they’re so rare,” said Jason Amaro, who hunted and fished with Salmon for years. “People used to say about the Rocky Mountains, ‘The mountains are the spine of the country.’ I don’t know if it’s the mountains anymore … I think it’s the rivers that are the spine of the country. They’re the one that transfers life. They’re the one that sends the signals up and down the body of the mountains. And that’s where the life is. Not the peaks of the mountains, not the ridges, but down below, down deep. The veins, rivers, that’s truly the lifeblood of the Rocky Mountains, and the Gila specifically. I think Dutch saw that.”

This spring, the Gila River surged almost overnight to 2,000 cubic feet per second. It scoured riverbanks and hammered canyon walls, reshaping rapids and posing a fatal threat to anyone who dared venture into it. For decades, Salmon was the person local newspapers called to tell them about how spring runoff remakes the river. But in March, Salmon was hospitalized with pneumonia. They thought he’d cleared it — so much so that Cherie brought his laptop to the local hospital, where he hammered out a column for the Outdoor Reporter, published by the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. But his health suddenly turned. That column, about fishing with his son, appeared pages away from his obituary.

“He would have loved to have seen it through to the end,” Cherie said of his fight for the Gila, “but he had faith in the community, and the river group here is very strong compared to what it was, well, now almost 40 years ago when he got to Grant County. … I think he died knowing that [the diversion plan] wasn’t going to happen. Hopefully, he was right.” 

In a Gila Conservation Coalition film of Salmon during his last trip down the Gila River, he said people would ask him why he advocates for wilderness. His response: “love of country.” 

“Sometimes they get mad — they think I’m criticizing them as if they don’t love their country, and they’ll say, ‘Well, I love my country. I can practically quote the Declaration of Independence,’” he said in the film. “And I say, ‘Well that’s all well and good, and that’s part of loving your country, but when a conservationist says I love my country, he means it literally. He means the country itself — the land, the water, the wilderness, the wildlife, what was here before.’ 

“[Aldo] Leopold,” he continued, “says wilderness is the raw material out of which we’ve hammered the artifact we call civilization, so to save a portion of that country is probably the most fundamentally conservative thing you can do. In other words, saving the Gila is a patriotic act. 

“Beside the fact,” he added with a soft chuckle, “that I don’t want to lose my fishing spot.”

This article first appeared on New Mexico In Depth and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.