News Feature | November 22, 2013

New Policy Battle: Save The River Or The Fish?

By Sara Jerome


New Mexico's last free-flowing river is caught up in a policy conundrum. 

The problem is that the Gila River is drying up. "A four-mile reach of the Gila River runs dry sometimes in hot summer months when irrigators divert water to irrigate pasture for cow-calf operations," according to the Albuquerque Journal

This has raised concerns about five native fish, "two of which are rare and protected, can’t live without water and populations have declined," the report said. But the solutions on the table may be problematic.

"One proposed solution to this problem is to build a $300 million dollar reservoir at taxpayers’ expense that would irreparably harm river health but could in theory release some water back to the river in dry months," the report said. 

In other words, the river would be damaged so the fish could live. 

"This plan is the latest justification pitched by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission for building the New Mexico Unit, a federal water project under the Arizona Water Settlements Act. The project would double current water withdrawals from the river for water supply, altering the natural flow of the Gila River, New Mexico’s last major, free-flowing river," the report said. 

The project "would take water from small and moderate floods and store it in a reservoir to release later to supplement the river in drier months," the report said. 

But critics say that it does little to "protect native fish that rely on flood flows to increase food supply and improve spawning habitat. We would be robbing Peter to pay Paul by essentially trading beneficial flood flows to increase low flows to the detriment of fish and other plants and wildlife that make up the river ecosystem," the piece said.

The river has been under threat for years, according to National Geographic, but environmentalists have helped protect it. Over the last 20 years, "tireless advocates have blocked the construction of two dams."  

For instance, the Gila Conservation Commission has mounted a protest against the new policy proposal. The plan is not a sure-thing yet. Officials at the commission are studying alternatives. 

For more on New Mexico water policy, check out previous coverage on Water Online. 

Image credit: "First Bridge over the Gila River ~ New Mexico," © 2007 VasenkaPhotography, used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license:

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