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A boondoggle on the last wild river in New Mexico

A boondoggle on the last wild river in New Mexico
Visitors play with their dog in the West Fork of the Gila River in the Gila National Forest of New Mexico on June 10, 2009. (Los Angeles Times)

When Aldo Leopold first came to the Southwest as a forest ranger in 1909, there were six mountainous areas in New Mexico and Arizona with more than half a million largely untracked acres at their core. A decade later all but one — the headwaters of the Gila River — had been fragmented by roads.

It was a moment of reckoning in our treatment of wild places, and Leopold seized the chance to advocate for preserving a last large remnant of our natural heritage in the Southwest. His vision helped keep the Gila headwaters primeval in perpetuity — the Gila Wilderness, the first such set aside in the world, remains off limits to roads, tourist developments and all things motorized and mechanized.

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Emerging from half a dozen mountain ranges up against the Continental Divide, the Upper Gila (pronounced HEE-la) River runs through canyons and arid forest surrounded by high desert. After leaving the Gila Wilderness, it meanders through an agricultural valley, where small-scale diversions draw from the river for pasture lands. Then it plunges once more through steep-walled canyons in what locals call the Middle Box. It doesn't meet its first immovable obstacle until Coolidge Dam, far down in the desert of Arizona, beyond which the Lower Gila can't really be called a river at all.

The wild character of the Upper Gila could soon change, however, now that the state of New Mexico is pushing for a diversion dam to be built there. In 2004, in the horse-trading accompanying a complex piece of legislation called the Arizona Water Settlements Act, Congress authorized $66 million for any project that met a water need in southwest New Mexico. The deal included an additional amount up to $62 million specifically contingent on building a new Gila dam. That promise of extra money has skewed the incentives away from cost-effective water conservation efforts and toward a Bureau of Reclamation boondoggle.

We should honor the legacy of Aldo Leopold and allow the Upper Gila to go about the ancient business of simply being a river.


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And a boondoggle it most certainly would be. Upper Gila diversion-dam proponents first called for a billion-dollar scheme to pump water over the Continental Divide into another river basin entirely, with the cost differential covered by parties unknown. Then they scaled back their wish list to a multiphase project that would still cost hundreds of millions of dollar to fully construct and more than $1 million a year to operate and maintain.

The goal, stated baldly by dam proponents, is to do whatever it takes to prevent Gila River water from crossing the state line to Arizona. New Mexico officials have long cultivated the idea that the state was stiffed in the water wars of the 20th century. Now it's payback time, with the Upper Gila headed for a sacrificial altar to settle old scores.

Those of us who love wild rivers — who enjoy boating on them, fishing in them and birding along their banks — fail to see how this would be beneficial to anyone aside from a hundred or so farmers and the international mining company Freeport-McMoRan, which, as the largest landowner in the valley below the proposed diversion dam, rents land to some of those farmers.

And for those minimal benefits, the costs — to the river's ecology as well as taxpayers' pocketbooks — would be enormous.

The Upper Gila watershed is home to seven threatened or endangered species of birds, snakes, frogs and fish. With a diversion dam stealing water from the river, it would no longer see the natural pulses of energy and nutrients that reshape the floodplain and rejuvenate niche habitats crucial to those creatures' survival. Its days as a living river in New Mexico would be over.

That the Upper Gila is the last wild river in the state — and one of the last wild watersheds in the West — appears not to trouble those pushing a new diversion dam. But I suspect it would trouble the godfather of the Gila Wilderness, Aldo Leopold.

Once again, the Gila represents the last of something valuable. Every other main-stem river in New Mexico is subdued by human infrastructure, put to use for drinking water or for growing pecans, green chiles and alfalfa. The state's most storied river, the Rio Grande, diverted end to end for human use, is often a desiccated swath of sand in long stretches across its middle. That stands in stark contrast with the Upper Gila, where even the engineers who prepared the preliminary diversion-dam report acknowledge the river's "wild and scenic" nature.

Industrial-size threats to what's left of our natural inheritance are a whack-a-mole phenomenon. David Brower, the founder of the Sierra Club, liked to say that "the extractive interests — the miners and loggers and dam builders — only have to win once. We have to win every time."

Advocates for a wild Upper Gila River have beaten back numerous proposals to dam it over the last 100 years. Miraculously, this stretch of river still runs as high and fast as snowmelt and rainfall dictate. The only predictable thing about it is its unpredictability, from roaring flood to summertime trickle. Its extreme variability adds to its uniqueness among Western rivers, and accounts for its healthy and resilient riparian ecosystem.

New Mexico has already conducted years of public meetings on the diversion dam, and spent $12 million largely on the work of consultants, lawyers and engineers. An additional $17 million will go to conducting a challenging environmental review of the latest proposal. It's not too late to end this folly and steer available money to commonsense water projects. We should honor the legacy of Aldo Leopold and allow the Upper Gila to go about the ancient business of simply being a river.

Philip Connors is the author of "Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout." His new book, "A Song for the River," will be published next year.

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