If you are like most New Mexicans, you turn towards nature for inspiration, cultural and traditional significance, adventure, and for livelihood. You might visit one or all of the several parks and monuments (Bandelier National Monument, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument), drive along the scenic byways, irrigate your ancestral land with a four hundred-year-old acequia, or simply take in the sights and sounds of the state’s sacred and breathtaking landscapes. What these places all have in common and need to survive is water.
Water is the source of all life. In the arid West, water is the lifeblood of our land, our economy, and our way of life. What would the world be like without water?
In the face of climate change, persistent drought, and over-allocation, New Mexico’s rivers, including the Gila River and the Rio Grande, are running dry. As you read this story, our rivers are facing historic low snowpack levels and river flows. Communities are bracing themselves for a year of diminished water for people and wildlife. Low river levels are the top concern for over 80% of western voters. Our rivers and all they support are at risk.
In order to make meaningful change in water and land use in the West, particularly in New Mexico, in the face of climate change, Audubon must use a multi-faceted approach to innovative water conservation solutions that provide long-term water for communities and wildlife.
The core of our success in New Mexico rests on our expertise and ability to participate in water use, infrastructure, and land practice discussions with local communities. It is through these discussions that innovative solutions can be found to both ensure sustainable water for people while replenishing the mighty rivers in our state.
Audubon is the leader in the state on innovative programs to restore nature’s share of water. In partnership with irrigation districts, tribal nations and senior water users, Audubon has implemented first-of-its-kind voluntary water transfers and modernized water policies to restore vibrant ribbons of river habitat benefiting more than one hundred miles along the Rio Grande and its tributaries. We seek to address key water-related challenges by advancing balanced solutions to water use in New Mexico to ensure birds, ecosystems, people and economies thrive. We remain steadfast in developing an unprecedented state-wide effort to improve and increase streamflow for the benefit of rivers, securing a greater share of water for birds, other wildlife, and the communities that depend on them.
Dedicating water to the state’s beleaguered rivers is one goal of Audubon New Mexico’s statewide Freshwater Conservation program, which also includes advocating to save the free-flowing Gila River from a proposed diversion. We know that more viable options exist — Audubon’s Water Alternative for the Gila River (to be released in April for the City of Deming) —that are closely aligned with what New Mexican residents actually want, prioritizing water conservation and reuse before diverting more water from New Mexico’s rivers. (2018 Conservation in the West Poll).
Water conservation and infrastructure upgrades are well-proven, reliable options. Water utilities across the United States have successfully invested in active water conservation as an effective water-supply planning strategy for decades. Sustainable land and river management, water conservation, and water reuse practices lead to solutions that are sustainable and economically viable while increasing the health of our ecosystems. These proven efforts result in securing more water for our communities, environment, wildlife, and future generations while strengthening the local economic resilience to long-term drought without having to increase diversions from our already depleted and over allocated rivers. We must protect and conserve the water we have today to ensure we have water tomorrow.
Protecting the Gila River
The Southwestern New Mexico Audubon Society and Audubon New Mexico, in partnership with Western Resources Advocates, are working to preserve the Gila River's natural flows by providing an innovative water alternative for a sustainable water future for the Southwestern part of the state (The City of Deming). This water alternative details proven water conservation strategies to ensure the Gila River remains intact. If the natural flow of the Gila River is disrupted, we will spoil the deep-rooted rich legacy we leave future generations.
The history of the West is etched in water and our continuing legacy depends on it. The Gila River is a living treasure. History abounds in and around the Gila River. Geronimo, a fierce defender of his Apache homeland, was born among the headwaters of the Gila. Before the nomadic Apache, the inhabitants of the cliffs built their homes in the tributary canyons of the Gila. Fragments of pottery, petroglyphs, and pit houses tell the stories of ancient people who lived in the Gila Wilderness thousands of years ago.
This crown jewel was the precursor to the 1964 Wilderness Act. Forty years before the act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson, 755,000 acres in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, including the Middle Fork of the Gila River, became the world’s first designated wilderness in the world, thanks to Aldo Leopold’s love for this special place.
The Gila Headwaters make up the largest complexes of mountain wilderness in North America south of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. It is the Gila River’s naturally occurring variable flows ―the high, mid-size and base flows ―that create and sustain the structure, the composition, and health of the forest. The Gila Wilderness is one of the most ecologically diverse wilderness complex in North America. It harbors some of the greatest breeding bird diversity and density in the United States and, with climate change, may provide key habitat for tropical species as ranges expand northward.
The Gila’s riparian ecosystem where over 300 species of bird have been recorded, is a critically important habitat for the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and you will find a high abundance of Southwestern Willow Flycatchers catching insects mid-air above free-flowing waters. Flycatcher nesting habitat, both large and small, abounds along the Gila River, a tributary of the Colorado River, in the multi-aged riparian forest and floodplain wetlands located within the three Audubon Important Bird Areas in New Mexico. It also supports endangered and threatened wildlife from the Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep to the Gila trout.
Environmental partners and Audubon have remained steadfast in protecting the Gila River and Gila Wilderness. Today, 50 years later, we work to protect this crown jewel from yet another proposed diversion. Stay tuned for more information coming in April on this innovative water conservation solution.
Future water in New Mexico can go from scarcity to abundance, if we work together to implement sustainable water conservation and river management policies.