Tucked away in the southwestern corner of New Mexico, the headwaters of the Gila River pour out of mountains remote and wild. At least five other times in the past century, officials thought about taming or tapping its upper waters—then bumped up against the Gila’s unpredictability or inaccessibility.
But the problems of the past haven’t dissuaded New Mexico officials from planning a new diversion of the Gila river. Nor are diversion project proponents deterred by predictions for a warmer, drier future. Some say that makes a diversion all the more necessary. And today, state officials continue funneling contracts and cash to engineers and attorneys, even as scientists point out that a warming climate means less water in the region’s rivers.
“The Interstate Stream Commission asked me: ‘How is streamflow likely to change in the coming decades?’” says David Gutzler, a professor in the University of New Mexico Earth and Planetary Studies Department who the ISC contracted to study climate change in the Gila. “My basic answer was: streamflows are expected to decrease.”
Plans for the current diversion have been controversial, in part because there’s a gap between the tens of millions of dollars in federal money the state anticipates receiving and the cost of infrastructure that could capture and store even a portion of the water rights New Mexico wants to use.
Also, environmentalists say a diversion will harm the river, which flows out of the Gila Wilderness. Biologists fear its impact on the rare fish that rely on the river. And open government advocates have pointed to a lack of transparency in the state’s decision-making process.
Another question remains: Does the Gila River have water to spare?
Climate Change makes future unpredictable
Former ISC director Norman Gaume, along with two other analysts,
looked at the Gila’s historical flows measured over the past half-century. They ran the numbers to see how its waters stack up against the “paper water” New Mexico can legally divert under the conditions of a 2004 agreement with Arizona.
According to their analysis, in some years, the Gila might yield 12,500 acre feet of water – the state has paper rights to 14,000 – but in many years the yield will be much less, or nothing at all.
Those historical numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. That’s because what happened in the past is no longer a good predictor of what might happen in the future.
Weather will still vary. There will be wet years and cold snaps, times when rivers flood, and snows fall for days. But those day-to-day, or year-to-year, fluctuations aren’t the same as the steady change tracked over decades.
The early part of the year – the months that most affect snowmelt and runoff – is already 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in New Mexico than it was at the turn of the 20th century.
As the growing season keeps lengthening, warming will squeeze water supplies. Winter snows will start later and end earlier. The snow line will move higher in elevation and farther north. Before it can melt into streams, more of what does fall will be whisked into the atmosphere by warm winds, or sucked up by thirsty plants. And warming will increase evaporation from lakes, causing storage in reservoirs to decrease.
Scientists have been warning about climate change since the 1980s, and there is no shortage of information about warming in the southwest. In 2005, New Mexico released a paper on the potential effects of climate change, and in 2013, the US Global Change Research Program released detailed regional assessments. The US Bureau of Reclamation is studying warming’s impacts on the West’s large river basins, including the Colorado River, of which the Gila is a tributary. And within the last year, new studies have shown how warming will affect western river flows and groundwater.
What the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) had asked Gutzler to do was drill down and look at the upper Gila in New Mexico more closely. Specifically, he studied how rising temperatures will affect the Gila’s flows in the time period between 2021 and 2050.
“We saw a five to 10 percent projected decrease in upper Gila River snowmelt runoff due to climate change,” he says. That’s not a huge decrease. But it’s one worth paying attention to, especially within a river system that’s often dry in June.
As the southernmost snowmelt-fed stream river in North America, the Gila may offer lessons for the future of the arid West. “What’s happening here now,” says Gutzler, “will happen elsewhere later.”
Changes in the forest
Allen Campbell lives in Gila Hot Springs, along the river, but miles upstream from where the diversion would be built. Over the years, Campbell says he’s seen the river change, in particular since the Whitewater-Baldy Fire ripped through the Gila National Forest four years ago. At nearly 300,000 acres, that fire is the state’s largest in recorded history.
“I do not believe that this forest, as it was prior to the Whitewater fire, can be completely reconstructed or regrown naturally until after the next ice age,” he says. “A big portion of what was heavy forest is probably going to be brushland and grassland.”
Campbell does not attribute the fire, or the region’s warming, to human-caused climate change. But he has firsthand knowledge of how the timing of snowmelt has changed in the past few years. “We’re getting an earlier runoff because the snow’s not tucked around the trees, or it’s in an open grassland – or at this point, just weed-covered,” he says. “There’s no canopy interception of the rain, no duff interception.”
Big changes are afoot, he says: “The environmental change and water problems are obvious and pretty much parrot what everybody says, that we’re going to have to conserve water and flat-out not use as much water in some places,” he says. “That’s one of the solutions.”
The other solution, he explains, is to stop letting so much of the Gila’s waters flow to Arizona.
Gila river diversion benefits: It’s debatable
Campbell represents the Gila Hot Springs Irrigation District as a board member of the NM Central Arizona Project Entity, a new state agency tasked with overseeing construction of the proposed Gila diversion project.
“Farming is pretty much arrested where it is right now,” he says, because they’re not allowed to take any more water, and have to let it flow to Arizona. “I believe that a diversion – which is not a dam – is a very, very, very sound way to store this water.”
Unlike mainstream dams that back up reservoirs in the channel, an off-stream diversion wouldn’t harm the Gila, he says.
In fact, he says it would help wet the river during those dry months in the early part of the summer – when the snowmelt has passed and monsoons haven’t yet arrived.
When water is released downstream to farmers, it will help the river channel. Not only that, he says, but the structure itself would likely seep. “If you take a bunch of water in February, March, and store it, then as the river dries down, it will become apparent that seepage – even just a few cubic feet per second, which is not a lot of water – is going to happen,” he says.
Campbell says New Mexico can build a diversion that will help farmers downstream – and benefit the river itself and recreational opportunities. “If we can work this out to be a benefit,” he says, “this is not a bad thing.”
What’s past isn’t prologue
More than a century ago, when Congress passed the Reclamation Act in 1902, it spurred an era of dam-building across the arid West. Here in New Mexico, farmers wouldn’t survive without the dams and diversions of the Middle Rio Grande Valley, or Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs.
But dams are expensive, funded almost exclusively by federal money. By the 1970s, Congress had already authorized the last of the nation’s big dams. In recent years, the US Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers have even dismantled some to benefit fisheries and the environment. Thanks to drought and warming, people are also staring down dwindling reservoirs across the arid West. The Colorado River’s Lake Mead is at record lows, and as of mid-October, Elephant Butte Reservoir is less than 7 percent full.
“That era (of big dams) is over, although that’s not to say people don’t keep talking about it,” says Michael Cohen, a senior research associate who has focused on the Colorado River Basin for nearly two decades.
He works for The Pacific Institute, a global water think tank, and points out there have only been a handful of big projects in recent decades.
One of those includes Colorado’s $500 million Animas-La Plata Project, which was authorized in 1968. The US Bureau of Reclamation broke ground in 2002; the reservoir began filling in 2009.
Here in New Mexico, the Gila diversion project has a long history, dating back decades.
In 2004, when Congress passed a law allowing New Mexico to take advantage of unused water rights on the Gila, it gave officials 10 years to decide how it wanted to proceed. New Mexico could meet water needs in four southwestern counties by tapping federal dollars for conservation and efficiency projects, or it could use the funds to build a diversion on the Gila River.
Over the course of that decade, the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) hired people like Gutzler to study everything from the river’s hydrology and health to climate change and conservation. Then, in 2014, members of the ISC cast their votes — and committed New Mexico to building a diversion.
That shouldn’t be surprising, says Cohen.
“I think it’s fairly typical that water agency leaders and states try to maximize their development of water,” Cohen says. “That’s just what they do, even though the facts typically say this is not a good use of money.”
Despite the challenges associated with climate change, and developments in water management, it’s not uncommon for people to cling to 20th century models, he says
“For a lot of these entities, pursuing new diversion or new storage projects even though most of the science says the water just isn’t going to be available: part of it is risk aversion,” he says. In other words, trying new things is daunting. And part of it is politics, he says: “(People) feel like they need to be demonstrating that they’re doing everything they can to maximize water.”
Declining fish populations
Biologist David Propst first started traipsing around the Upper Gila more 30 years ago. At that time, the federal government’s plans for the Hooker and Conner dams in New Mexico were still on the table. He and another biologist were hired to study how the dams would affect native fish species, including the spikedace and loach minnow.
Both those species live downstream from the state’s proposed diversion, and biologists like Propst say the new project will hurt their populations. Today, both fish are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The predicted 8 percent decrease in flows might not seem like that big a deal for the fish, says Propst. But lower flows mean higher water temperatures and changes in water quality. “The Gila’s a snowmelt-driven system, and both of these species use spring runoff as something of an environmental cue to initiate spawning,” says Propst. “With warming, timing of spring runoff will shift.”
And it’s the timing of snowmelt-driven flows that’s probably most important to the endangered fish: “It’s the loss of important environmental cues, for important life history phases that can push them closer to the edge,” he says, “by reducing reproductive success, reducing recruitment.”
Climate-driven wildfires aren’t helping native fish species, either. After fires, ash and sedimentation wreak havoc on stream systems.
Today, spikedace and loach minnow are rarer than when he first started studying them in the 1980s. And their future doesn’t look good. Other species in that stretch of the river have declined, too. Today, the southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo are also protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“These fish adapted to incredible variability in the system, and environmental variability,” he says. “But if you have a shift of the whole suite of environmental drivers they evolved with, they can’t survive.”
Downstream of where it flows out of the Gila Wilderness, the river also supports tiny communities like Cliff, where cows graze green pastures framed by cottonwoods. Also, Virden — population about 100 — where farmers divert water for crops like chile.
With the exception of a small influx of retirees and artists since the 1970s, the population of the four-county area hasn’t changed much in recent decades: farming, ranching, and logging have always been dicey ways to make a living in southwestern New Mexico, which lacks easy access to customers or markets. Jobs at the copper mines dip up and down depending on changes in technology and fluctuations in prices.
Just downstream of where New Mexico plans to build its diversion, about 50 people irrigate off the river in the Cliff-Gila Valley of Grant County.
Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, Inc., which owns the area’s three copper mines, also owns land — and their water rights. Decades ago, farmers sold their water rights to Phelps Dodge, which Freeport bought in 2007. Today, Freeport leases land and water back to the farmers. In total, fewer than 2,000 acres are currently irrigated in the valley. Freeport owns about half those lands, and about 90 percent of the water is used to flood irrigate pasturelands.
While diversion proponents say the farmers need more water, former ISC director Norman Gaume says they’re not even using all the water available to them under existing agreements. According to his analysis, about 45 percent of the valley’s existing water rights are going unused.
Gaume retired from the ISC in 2002. More recently, he’s been
fighting the diversion, running independent analysis, critiquing engineering plans, taking legal action to force the ISC to release public information, and allying himself with conservation groups.
He confesses great love for the Gila, a place he’s visited since childhood. But it’s what he calls the state’s infeasible engineering plans that aggravate and offend him. In 2014, when the state released initial diversion plans, drawn up by its contractors at Bohannan Huston, Gaume jumped on them, pointing out engineering problems. He was vindicated a few months later when another firm sent a memo to the state: its independent review of the plans had found “significant technical challenges or potential fatal flaws.”
Two years later, the state’s contractors have revamped and resurrected plans, coming up with additional ideas.
Of his former agency Gaume asks: “How can they not know they have a failed project on their hands?”
He regularly attends the monthly ISC meetings, giving statements and asking questions from the audience, and he sued the agency over Open Meetings Act violations.
But there’s not much a citizen can do: “No one can hold ISC accountable for its technical work,” he says, “the commission’s only boss is the governor.”
After the Interstate Stream Commission voted in 2014 to build a diversion on the Gila River, local governments in Luna, Grant, Hidalgo, and Grant counties took over the project. Notably, one of the region’s largest cities – Silver City – chose not to participate.
In 2015, those local officials signed a Joint Powers Agreement which transferred federal authority to design, build, operate, and maintain the project to what’s called the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, or CAP Entity. ISC staff are still involved in the project; they also handle the millions of dollars already coming in from the US Bureau of Reclamation.
With the exception of executive director, Anthony Gutierrez, entity members aren’t paid for their work. They all juggle other roles and responsibilities – as county commissioners, well-drillers, farmers – usually traveling to meetings on their own dime and often reading hundreds of pages of complicated engineering and technical documents the night or morning before making decisions involving millions of dollars.
But members of the CAP Entity have a lot at stake, too: They’re responsible for building the diversion, filling the gap between the federal money and the project’s cost, and operating and maintaining the infrastructure after it’s built.
One of those local members is Grant County, through which the Gila flows.
“Our commission decided we would be a part of it instead of watching from outside,” says Brett Kaston, a county commissioner who has rotated off the entity.
Recently, Grant County also passed a resolution to ensure that water isn’t siphoned off to another part of the state.
Three years ago, for example, Doña Ana County’s Sen. John Arthur Smith, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, submitted a capital outlay request. Smith wanted $25 million for the Interstate Stream Commission to plan, design, and study a pipeline that would move that Gila water to Las Cruces, where farmers are caught up in a water battle between New Mexico and Texas on the lower Rio Grande.
Kasten campaigned for county commissioner as a diversion supporter. But he also recognizes the project’s limitations. And the river’s. “The diversion is good,” he says. “But realistically, there’s not enough water to use except for agricultural use in the Gila valley.”
He lays out the numbers: The state has legal rights to 14,000 acre feet: 10,000 from the Gila itself and 4,000 from its tributary, the San Francisco (which doesn’t cross Grant County). Of that 10,000 acre-feet, he estimates that about 7,000 acre feet is available —enough to irrigate just over 2,000 acres.
“The fact is, the river doesn’t make that much water,” he says.
A Wild River
In the late 1960s, when Congress was considering the law authorizing Hooker dam (or its “suitable alternative”) in New Mexico, The Wilderness Society sent out a call to action. From around the country, people mailed cards and posted telegrams to members of Congress. Outraged advocates rose to defend the Gila Wilderness. As planned, Hooker’s reservoir would have backed into the wilderness area.
More recently, New Mexico’s plans to build a diversion have inspired calls to protect one of the southwest’s “last free-flowing rivers.” A river most New Mexicans have probably never dipped a toe into suddenly became a favorite.
But the Gila’s no virgin, untrammeled river. Downstream of the border with Arizona its waters are impounded in San Carlos Reservoir. By the time the river reaches Phoenix, it’s little more than a trickle. By Yuma it’s usually dry. Even within New Mexico, farmers rely on canals and headgates siphoning water from the river, and Freeport stores water for its mines in Bill Evans Lake, a manmade lake that pumps water from the Gila.
“It’s not quite fair to say it’s the only undammed stream in the southwest,” says Michael Bogan, a stream ecologist and assistant professor in the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment. “But it is probably one of less than ten – out of hundreds of streams – in the southwest that aren’t impacted in any major way by dams and diversions.”
That is, no one is controlling the river’s flows, moving water from from one reservoir to the next. The Upper Gila still has a natural flow regime–something that is rare in today’s world.
“Because the Gila is so dynamic, there’s a variety of aquatic habitat types — in the stream channel, in the floodplain, from season-to-season, and from year-to-year,” he says. “From an ecologist’s perspective, that’s one of the coolest things around.” The upper Gila is also a place where cold water species – like trout – bump up against neo-tropical species that are more common to places like Mexico’s Sierra Madre.
There’s another reason the Gila’s unique. It’s a snowmelt-fed system that also gets slammed with monsoons and tropical storms coming off the Gulf of Mexico.
Those storms don’t hit regularly, but when they do, they have a huge impact on the river. In 1972, the Cliff-Gila Valley was hit with a flood so huge it merited a national disaster declaration. The most recent event occurred in September 2013.
In early September, the river had been chugging along at around 200 feet per cubic second; higher than usual for that time of year, but nothing special. Then, heavy rains pounded the mountains. For almost two weeks, the Gila screamed down its channel, uprooting giant cottonwood trees, black willows, and sycamores. Water, boulders, trees, and debris pounded the floodplain flat.
That same September, when water managers on the Middle Rio Grande worried that the state’s largest river might overflow its banks in Albuquerque or damage irrigation infrastructure, it peaked at only 4,320 cubic feet per second.
Bogan says those storms contribute to what makes the Gila so special. “The magnitude of those flood events are pretty unique for southwestern rivers,” says Bogan. “It is such a dynamic system—and that dynamism expresses itself in the huge variety of species there.”
That dynamism also makes the upper Gila a tricky river to dam.
For its first 200 miles, the Gila’s an unpredictable river. Its mountains are at the extreme southern end of winter snowstorms, which affect spring runoff. And while its channel often dries in the early summer, its floodwaters can also flatten trees across the floodplain, tear out culverts and headgates, and slough off two ton chunks of the bank.
Its wild upper stretches host a diversity of species — from wolves to black hawks — yet can barely sustain populations of tiny rare fish. And while farms and mines wouldn’t survive without its waters, the Gila has never turned the southwestern part of the state into an economic engine.
For almost a century, people have pinned dreams to development of the river, envisioning opportunities to boost the region’s economy. Others see it as a symbol, of something still wild. Meanwhile, as history keeps repeating itself on the Gila, the climate is changing.
As the region keeps warming, no agreements that transform backroom negotiations into paper water rights – or even acts of Congress – can change the facts of a river. Especially a small southwestern river that runs its own course.