Audubon New Mexico recently partnered with the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance and the City of Deming’s High School Youth Leadership at the annual Gila River Children’s Water Festival to increase environmental education delivery by making our state’s rich biodiversity accessible for 5th graders from Deming Public Schools. Audubon’s Director of Conservation, Beth Bardwell, and Mark Madsen, Education Outreach Manager, provided hands-on instruction to 112 curious 5th graders that followed New Mexico’s common core standards. A wide range of topics were covered from a station where children sampled and classified living organisms found in the river, weaved baskets with cattails to better understand how people use the river’s many resources in a peaceful way, and studied the migration patterns of the local birds we all love. Unlike many science-based festivals targeting the public, the Gila River Children’s Water Festival tackled conservation issues and explored environmental learning through a child’s perspective as students familiarized themselves with the last free-flowing river in New Mexico.
Deming is the largest urban population center in Southwest New Mexico, but the vast majority of participating students had never visited the Gila River – just an hour and a half from their doorstep and the birthplace of the American Wilderness Act. This fall, they discovered what the River means for birds and people just as the Gila River is involved at the heart of a long-fought battle over water conservation in the west. For more than a decade, state and local officials have tried to build an unnecessary and costly diversion on the Gila River when dollar-wise water conservation and efficiency projects would secure the region’s water supply. A Gila River diversion would threaten the health of the river, and forever change a unique and pristine stretch of the river where many New Mexican families relax and explore.
The Gila River’s natural flow pattern also supports extensive multi-age cottonwood-willow forests and wetlands, and Audubon recognizes the importance of these healthy riparian systems to populations of breeding birds once common across the Colorado River Basin – which the Gila is a tributary of – like Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Yellow-Billed Cuckoo and Bell’s Vireo. These findings are detailed in the Audubon Western Bird and Water report and are being shared widely as Audubon builds a coalition of environmentalists, community members, and scientists that advocate for the conservation of western rivers.