In the face of climate change and a history of proposals to dam or divert water from the Gila River, U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, Democrats from New Mexico, have introduced legislation that would designate a section of the Gila River in New Mexico as a wild and scenic river. This legislation bears the name of M.H. Dutch Salmon, who advocated for the protection of the Gila River. The Wild and Scenic River Act, which passed in 1968, helps protect free-flowing rivers by prohibiting the use of federal funds to support projects like dams or diversions that would harm the free-flowing condition or the water quality. The legislation introduced by Heinrich and Lujan would protect 446 miles of river segments in New Mexico under that law. Those river segments include portions of the Gila and San Francisco rivers as well as a part of the east fork of the Mimbres River.
Climate change isn’t in the future for New Mexico—it’s already here and impacting families of color, according to climate change experts. From Navajo leaving their land due to dwindling resources, hotter wildfires altering landscapes, an increase of climate change refugees crossing outside ports of entry and wells running dry in rural areas, families of color in New Mexico are already feeling the heat from climate change, various sources told NM Political Report. Joan Brown, executive director of climate justice organization New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light, said it’s hard to not feel “immobilized” by the immensity of the problem. “Climate change is touching into every aspect of life and all of our neighbors’ lives,” she said. According to a Yale Project on Climate Change and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication report, communities of color are likely to disproportionately feel climate change more than white communities due to socioeconomic inequities.
While various environmental advocacy groups are pushing for river otter reintroduction in the Gila River basin of New Mexico, biologists say this could impact several sensitive fish species that the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has been working to protect and recover. These fish once coexisted with the river otters in a natural ecosystem and Michael Robinson with Center for Biological Diversity said they could live together once again. But one of the questions that the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish must grapple with is whether the ecosystem as it is today can support both the sensitive species of fish and the otter. Tristanna Buickford, a spokesperson for the department, said there is not a timeline in place for the river otter reintroduction effort and the department is currently exploring the possibility. She said more studies will need to be done.
Howard Hutchinson bought his first parcel of land in southwestern New Mexico near the Gila Wilderness in the 1970s.
“I hitchhiked into here in 1973. And I said, ‘Wow, paradise. This is awesome. This is where I want to live to raise my family,’” Hutchinson told NM Political Report.
At the time, Hutchinson said he was a “radical environmentalist,” and an early member of the controversial environmental group Earth First.
But Hutchinson said his views on environmentalism have evolved since then.
“As I aged, and became closer with a lot of the longtime residents here, I began to realize that there was a land use ethic that they had developed quite naturally,” he said. “You don’t develop that land use ethic, and you don’t survive in the arid Southwest.
Representatives from two opposing groups in New Mexico testified before the U.S. House Energy and Natural Resources Committee Wednesday, painting conflicting portraits of support for a bill that would see portions of the Gila River receive federal Wild and Scenic designations.
The M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act would designate 446 miles of the Gila River and other waters in the Gila and San Francisco water basin as either wild or scenic, protecting those portions of river from future development. U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich presented the legislation at the hearing. The bill is named after M.H. Dutch Salmon, a nature writer and longtime advocate of the Gila River who passed away in 2019. Heinrich said the bill would “permanently protect some of the most dynamic and spectacular rivers and streams in our country.”
“The Gila and San Francisco Rivers are the beating heart of southwest New Mexico and are home to some of the most spectacular places in the west, full stop,” he said.
Udall said the bill was the result of two years of work by groups in New Mexico, and said the bill was drafted with extensive input from various stakeholders.
“Sen. Heinrich and I took the unusual step of posting a discussion draft of the legislation early this year, which we revised to reflect community concerns,” Udall said.
RELATED: A win for the state’s last wild river
Udall and Heinrich were joined by Jamie Crockett, the co-owner of Gila Backcountry Services, who also spoke in favor of the bill.
“This bill is the result of a grassroots movement and nearly a decade of work, from and by the people of my community, to guarantee protections of these rivers, their values, their current uses, and our traditional ways of life,” Crockett said.
U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich introduced legislation Tuesday that would designate portions of the Gila River as Wild and Scenic, after a “years-long” effort to protect what’s known as one of the country’s last wild rivers.
The M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act would designate 446 miles of the Gila River and other waters in the Gila and San Francisco water basin as either wild or scenic, protecting those portions of river from future development.
RELATED: A win for the state’s last wild river
Udall said they drafted the legislation with input from community members, private landowners, outdoor recreation enthusiasts, local fishers, farmers and ranchers. Udall said he and Heinrich also worked with landowners and state agencies to identify where the designation boundaries should be. “We opened up that draft for additional feedback, to make sure New Mexicans have a seat at the table in helping determine the future of the Gila,” Udall said. “We have now introduced a strong piece of legislation that will protect the Gila, while ensuring that existing uses and planned projects, including grazing, recreation, restoration, and access can continue.”
Heinrich said the legislation is timely in a period of economic uncertainty caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“The outdoor recreation industry was fueling some of our fastest job growth, particularly in our rural communities, just before the pandemic hit,” Heinrich said. “Roosevelt said conservation means development as much as it means protection, and he’s absolutely right.
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.
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.
Plans for the Gila River diversion have changed. Again. At a meeting in Silver City on July 2, members of the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity voted to scale back development plans on the Gila River and one of its tributaries in southwestern New Mexico. The vote took place following completion of a preliminary draft environmental impact statement (PDEIS) about the group’s plans in the Cliff-Gila Valley, on the San Francisco River and in Virden, a town in Hidalgo County near the Arizona border. As proposed by the CAP Entity, the waters of the Gila River would be diverted, about three-and-a-half miles downstream from where the river runs out of the Gila Wilderness, via a 155-foot concrete weir wall.
SILVER CITY, N.M.—On Monday morning, the organization responsible for planning and building a diversion on the Gila River convened a special meeting to discuss a letter from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In that letter, the federal agency reiterated concerns over the project’s schedule. During the special meeting, New Mexico Central Arizona Project (CAP) Entity board members placed blame for the delays squarely on the shoulders of Reclamation itself, along with the contractor hired to conduct environmental studies, environmental groups and the administration of former-Gov. Bill Richardson. NM Political Report obtained a copy of the letter, which is from Reclamation’s Phoenix office area manager, Leslie Meyers. In it, Meyers follows up on a March 15 conference call between Reclamation and the CAP Entity and asks if the group plans to continue spending money on the environmental impact statement (EIS).