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New Mexico Considers Diverting Gila River, Faces Opposition

Gila River
Stina Sieg/KJZZ
file | staff
The Gila River is a major tributary of the Colorado River that flows through parts of Arizona and New Mexico.

As drought across the West persists, the fight for water is getting more heated. In rural, southwestern New Mexico, the battle is over the Gila River.

After years of discussions, the state has decided to divert the river and capture the precious water for later use. But opponents say the move will be too costly and environmentally harmful.

On a recent morning, Todd Schulke was standing by the sandy banks of Gila River, meandering through a remote but popular camping spot called Turkey Creek.

“It’s a wild river,” he said.  “It doesn’t have much development on it.”

That’s what makes the Gila River different from most waterways in the Southwest, he said.

“There are some little, tiny diversion dams for small-scale irrigation, but there’s no big dams that change the character of the river,” he said. “The river flows the way it’s flowed forever.”

And Schulke, who co-founded the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, is fighting to keep it that way. A diversion could be built on this very spot. It wouldn’t be a traditional dam, but a concrete structure which over which water would flow. At flood stages, some water would make its way through miles of underground pipes and eventually to homes and farms. Opponents like Schulke think that’s a terrible idea.

“Destroying the Gila River and paying a billion dollars for a very small amount of water, it just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “It’s kind of ridiculous.”

That price tag, by the way, is fiercely debated. So far, the state has said “yes” to $128 million in federal funds to help pay for the project — a project supporters say is vital to keeping this area alive.

The town of Cliff was built on the river and isn’t far from the diversion site. Standing on a bluff, resident Linda Stailey remembered what this place looked like decades ago. 

“Rows and rows a corn. Acres and acres of alfalfa,” she said. “It was absolutely beautiful.”

Now, it’s mostly grazing area — or not used at all. Stailey explained that many residents simply don’t have water rights to farm anymore.

“Our young people can’t stay here,” she said. “They have to leave to find work.”

Due to some very complicated history, most of the water actually belongs to the Gila River Indian Community near Phoenix, hours away. New Mexico can use some of this water. But only if it builds a diversion and pays for additional water to be delivered to the tribe through a web of Arizona canals. It’s complex and expensive, but Stailey isn’t fazed.

“Does it matter?” she asked.  “You know, we’re not going to survive very long without water — individually or as a society.”

Down in the Deming, Tink Jackson feels the same. He’s the manager for neighboring Luna County.

“You know, the reality is, I’ve had industries come through here looking for a home here in Luna County, that could utilize every drop of that water – and would if we would have had it,” he said.

Jackson, like many diversion fans, believes the Gila’s water can help stimulate an area that’s been cash-strapped for years.

“You’re talking about a county with a 16- or 17-percent unemployment rate,” he said. “I’m turning away employers that would employ 200 or 300 people, because we don’t have the water for their industry.”

But opponents say a diversion wouldn’t provide enough water to make a difference.

Back at the Gila’s edge, Todd Schulke thinks all diversion talk will fall through – eventually.

“But there’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in this,” he said.

If his side does win, he thinks it’s time to get government protection for this section of the Gila.

“It deserves it. It’s gorgeous. It’s the kind of place that people just love to go,” he said. “And there just aren’t very many places like it – in the West or in the world.”

If New Mexico goes through with the diversion, it will take years – possibly decades – for the project to be complete.

When senior field correspondent Stina Sieg was 22, she moved to the desert. She hasn’t been the same since. At the time, the Northern California native had just graduated from college and was hankering for wide-open spaces. So she took a leap and wrote to nearly every newspaper in New Mexico until one offered her a job. That’s how she became the photographer for a daily paper in the small town of Silver City. And that’s when she realized how much she loved storytelling. In the years since, the beauty of having people open up and share their stories — and trust her to tell them — has never gotten old to Sieg. Before coming to KJZZ, Sieg was also a writer and photographer at newspapers in Glenwood Springs, Colorado; Moab, Utah; and the Smoky Mountains town of Waynesville, North Carolina. She always had her hand in public radio, too, including hosting Morning Edition on a fill-in basis at WNCW in North Carolina. It’s still the best music station she’s found. When she’s not reporting, chances are Sieg is running, baking, knitting or driving to some far-flung town deep in the desert — just to see what it looks like.