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Gila River Protection

What is the greatest threat to the Gila?

At our October monthly program, Carol and Mike Fugagli captivated the audience with a talk about how the Upper Gila Watershed could become a climate refugia for birds. They have devoted considerable effort to studying the Gila Wilderness near the confluence of Sapillo Creek with the Gila River. They illustrated their talk with splendid photographs of birds that may seek out this region because of climate change as well as stunning scenes of the riparian corridor. 

Near the end of their talk they provided an answer to the headline question. No, it is not a diversion of the river, nor F-16 flights, that is the greatest threat to the Gila, but rather the presence of feral cattle. It came as a surprise to many in the audience that there are large numbers of cattle that have escaped from grazing allotments for generations and become wild and unmanageable. These feral cattle have had a devastating effect on the riparian corridor. Stream banks are being eroded with concomitant increases in sediment and river channel alterations. Vegetation is overgrazed and vital riparian habitat destroyed.  The Forest Service has been unable to develop a plan to remove them. Photo by M. Fugagli

Action? During the questions following their talk, it was pointed out that the most effective action that people can take is to contact the Forest Service and request action to remove feral cattle from the Gila Wilderness.

Send comments to:

Gila National Forest - Supervisor’s Office
Attn.: Adam Mendonca
3005 E. Camino del Bosque
Silver City, NM 88061-7863

Water is Love and Livelihood:
Sharing stories from Gila River that drive our work today.

Photo: Marcia Corl

Terry Timme of Southwestern New Mexico Audubon Society shares a bit from the chapter’s origin story and how the Gila River moves their conservation work forward today.

This year, Southwestern New Mexico Audubon Society (SWNMAS) celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding in Silver City as the first National Audubon Society chapter in the state. Audubon chapters emerge throughout the nation for a variety of reasons, but SWNMAS was born out of an activist energy focused on the imminent threat of a dam on the Gila River – a free flowing tributary of the Colorado River. SWNMAS President Terry Timme shares a bit from the chapter’s origin story and how the Gila River moves their conservation work forward today:

“Several residents of Silver City who had a deep love affair with the river and the bird life it supported saw that they could more effectively fight for protection of the river as a part of the Audubon Society. One of those people was Marian Zimmerman, a founding member of SWNMAS. Marian was a consummate birder and botanist. She and her husband, Dale, have been a guiding light for conservation of the Gila River for decades. Upon her death in 2011, Dale established the Zimmerman Wildlife Conservation Endowment through Audubon New Mexico (ANM) to honor his love for his wife and the Gila River.

The Chapter continued to engage in Gila River conservation over the decades as more dams and diversions were proposed. Today, the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA), passed by Congress in 2004, is the most pressing threat to the Gila River that SNWMAS members are engaged in. The AWSA provides $66 million in funds to meet water supply needs in Southwestern New Mexico. The Act also authorized separate construction funding for diversions on the Gila and San Francisco Rivers that could remove up to 14,000 acre-feet of water per year. SWNMAS, as well as Audubon New Mexico, have been actively encouraging the use of the appropriated taxpayer funds to meet multiple water needs in the four counties that make up Southwest New Mexico by funding non-diversion alternative projects that would provide water security for the region into the future. Supplying water for people through thoughtful water alternatives keeps water for wildlife flowing.

SWNMAS’ foundation was built on protecting the Gila River and a deep love for community. A more recent love story echoes that of Marian and her husband Dale. Sara Boyett, former President and current Program Chair, and Terry Timme, current President, discovered that they shared not just a love for the Gila River but also for each other. After years of working together to help the chapter protect the Gila River, they were married in 2016. They playfully suggest that their wedding vows should have included, “what Audubon has brought together, let no one put asunder.” They continue to be actively engaged in the struggle to find sensible solutions and common ground for all sides in the AWSA process and enjoy birding along the river that brought them together.

In New Mexico, water is love, life, livelihood, and according to a recent survey done by Colorado College, one of the first things on everyone’s minds. In New Mexico, rivers fuel a $9.9 billion outdoor recreation economy -- more reason to protect one of New Mexico’s last free flowing rivers, the Gila. New Mexicans’ love of their land and water runs deep. Seventy-eight percent of New Mexicans’ think the presence of public lands and our lifestyle of outdoor recreation make New Mexico a great place to live. In fact, New Mexicans are as concerned with inadequate water supplies, low levels of water in rivers, and pollution of rivers, lakes, and streams as they are with unemployment. It is no wonder so many love stories grow out of the river when we spend so much time on them, thinking about them, loving them.

Western Rivers Action Network

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The Gila River, New Mexico's last wild river, has been named one of the country’s most endangered by American Rivers. Healthy rivers are essential to our livelihoods and wildlife. Audubon New Mexico is working to improve river health and resiliency. We CAN help.

Proposed Diversions - Catastrophic to IBAs

Jorge Figueroa (pictured) discussed the recent Audubon New Mexico and Western Resource Advocates report offering affordable water conservation and efficiency solutions to help Deming, Southwest New Mexico’s largest community, meet future water needs, save tens of millions of dollars in capital improvements and protect the state’s crown jewel, the Gila River.

Importing water from the Gila River to meet the demands of Deming is like using Leonardo da Vinci paintings to build a fire to cook your meal,” said Jorge Figueroa, author of the report and consultant to Western Resource Advocates. “Smarter and cheaper options exist. A sustained and long-term investment in water conservation is the most cost effective and reliable source of new water for the region, and is one that protects the Gila River.”

Proposed water diversions from the river could be catastrophic to Important Bird Areas, the river’s health, and its uniqueness as the state’s (and one of the West’s) last great free-flowing rivers. The solutions proposed in the report would help build resiliency to drought, safeguard birds, and protect the Gila River—a sacred and culturally irreplaceable natural landscape in our state.