Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The Gila River, which flows out of New Mexico’s largest designated wilderness area, has been named the nation’s most endangered river as debate continues to smolder over a high-profile proposed diversion project.
The 649-mile-long river, which runs west from New Mexico into Arizona, beat out New York’s Hudson River and the upper Mississippi River for the dubious distinction, which is given yearly by American Rivers, a national conservation group.
The river – home to a rare trout species – is threatened by climate change and the proposed diversion project, the group said Tuesday in announcing its 2019 list.
“It’s not exactly a good thing to be No. 1 on the list, but it does raise awareness of the issue,” said Allyson Siwik, the executive director of the Silver City-based Gila Conservation Coalition.
Debate over whether to build a large-scale diversion project on the Gila River in New Mexico dates back to at least the 1960s, but disagreements, delays and court challenges have kept construction from taking place.
However, this year could prove pivotal as the state faces a deadline under a 2004 law passed by Congress that provided up to 14,000 acre-feet of water and made available nearly $66 million in federal funding to date.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office in January, pledged on the campaign trail to end work on the Gila River Diversion Project.
The governor also used her line-item veto authority this month to ax nearly $1.7 million for the project from a bill that authorizes more than $900 million in public infrastructure spending.
“She’s made her position on the diversion project clear, and that has not changed,” Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said Tuesday.
He also said the Gila River will feature prominently in a new 50-year water plan Lujan Grisham has vowed to undertake, while also pointing out that the governor issued an executive order aimed at combating the effects of climate change.
However, backers of the diversion project say the state will lose out on additional revenue and new water rights if the project is not completed.
Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, questioned critics’ description of the Gila as a “free-flowing” river, saying there are already multiple irrigation ditches and acequias that divert water from the river as it flows toward Arizona.
Although state lawmakers have a limited say in how the debate is ultimately resolved, competing bills dealing with the Gila River both stalled during this year’s 60-day legislative session.
One measure with bipartisan backing would have given more authority to the organization tasked with planning and building a Gila River diversion project, technically known as the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity.
Meanwhile, the other proposal would have reallocated money available under the 2004 federal law for the project to other southwestern New Mexico water projects.
Critics of the proposed diversion project say those alternatives should be pursued, arguing that they would not hurt the state’s tourism economy or cause environmental damage.
“There are cultural and historic reasons why the Gila is a special place,” Siwik said.
Dow, for one, said she’s not opposed to some alternative projects, adding that she hopes the current political logjam is broken soon.
“The project is stalled, and I wish there was a resolution,” Dow told the Journal.
Other waterways on the list of most endangered rivers include the Green-Duwamish River in Washington, the Willamette River in Oregon and Alaska’s Chilkat River.