Building Bridges to Connect People to their “Water” Roots

An Audubon Chapter’s quest to preserve the Gila River: New Mexico’s Last Free-flowing River

Nearly forty thousand concerned activists have joined Audubon’s Western Rivers Action Network to advocate for conservation initiatives that protect our western rivers, streams, and springs for the benefit of birds and other wildlife. Among them are the members of the Southwestern New Mexico Audubon Society Gila River Task Force (SWNMAS).  Their goal, which the chapter has been pursuing since 1968, is to protect New Mexico’s last free-flowing river ―the Gila! 

The headwaters of the Gila River are the birthplace of the world’s first wilderness area. The New Mexico reach of the Gila River is one of the very best destinations in the Southwest for birding, boating, fishing, pack trips, and hiking. There are three Important Bird Areas along this stretch of the Gila River which provide exceptional habitat for breeding birds. The network of wetlands and cottonwood gallery forests is home to abundant populations of some of the West’s most threatened birds, including Bell’s Vireo, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and Yellow-Billed Cuckoo. To read more, please click here.

From the passage of the Colorado River Basin Project Act in 1968 to the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act, which currently threatens the Gila, defenders of the Gila River have had to overcome one proposed dam or diversion after another. SWNMAS cut its teeth fighting first the Hooker Dam, then the Conner Dam, followed by a Mangas Creek Diversion. Now the Chapter’s Gila River Task Force is battling yet another threat to the river ―a proposed Gila River diversion, aquifer storage and recovery project with off-stream reservoirs.

The task force members have diverse backgrounds. They are fortunate to include an educator, historian, agronomist, artist, microbiologist, city planner, plus others. The depth and breadth of their knowledge and experience allows them develop and deploy holistic strategic actions that address complex issues such as a sustainable water supply that will help conserve water in the arid southwest.

The Gila River Task Force is committed to protecting the Gila and to pursuing the longer-term goal of building public awareness of the value of water conserved and reused. “Just as our Audubon predecessors boldly created a movement to educate the public and pass legislation to protect wild birds from the deadly feather trade, we can do likewise in educating the public to protect this precious and limited resource ―water,” says Sara Boyett, co-founder of the Gila River Task Force and currently president of SWNMAS .

She adds, “The proponents of the diversion are trapped in old ways of thinking about water, when it was thought possible to turn the Southwest’s deserts into Midwestern-style farmscapes. While we may never completely agree about the highest and best use of water, we do have overlapping values grounded in our shared history as children of pioneer forebears. If we can remind diversion advocates of our common roots, that is, that we are the descendants of people who conserved and reused every precious drop of water. They were pioneer women and men who reused their water for bathing, kitchen cleaning, laundry washing, and then recycled that water to grow gardens and trees. This shared history undergirds our common values.”

In this spirit, the Gila River Task Force is looking beyond the day when the current proposal to divert the Gila is defeated. Their goal is to increase the public’s awareness of the value of water, whether at the kitchen sink or at the river.  They hope to influence public policy to ensure a future where we all have both a secure water supply and a free-flowing Gila River.

How you can help, right now