Gila River[Excerpt] In today’s world where most rivers are turned on and off like plumbing works, the Gila in southwestern New Mexico is a rare gem:  one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the United States and the only one in New Mexico.

The Gila (pronounced Heela) spotlights what a river can be when it flows not according to human demands for water and energy but rather to Nature’s time-tested rhythms.  Its seasonal highs and lows and gentle meanders across a broad floodplain create a rich mosaic of habitats that are home to a splendorous array of life – including some 280 species of birds.  Among them are the rare western yellow-billed cuckoo, the Mexican spotted owl and perhaps the largest population anywhere of the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, which fancies the gracious Goodding willows that shade the Gila’s banks.

Within minutes of reaching the river on a bright September day I spied two kingfishers skimming the water, on the hunt.  Then, there came a flicker of red – perhaps a vermilion flycatcher.  And what sounded, improbably, like a shrieking seagull, but I had learned the day before was the call of a common black hawk, a stocky bird with a white-banded tail that lives in the riverside woodlands and preys on frogs, small fish and other aquatic creatures.

In the background was the music of the Gila’s riffles, where the river bubbles over cobbles in its bed, adding oxygen to the water.  It was a sensory feast – the sights and sounds of the Gila, alive.

But the river is once again at risk. Over the last twenty-five years, tireless advocates have blocked the construction of two dams.  Today, the threat is a proposed diversion to siphon off 14,000 acre-feet of water per year.  By skimming peaks off of modest floods, and piping the water some 25 miles to an off-channel reservoir, the project would weaken the river’s critical connection to its floodplain and the galleries of cottonwoods and willows that provide the habitat so crucial to the area’s rich diversity of birds and wildlife.

While there is no identified need for this extra water supply, the diversion would help New Mexico stake its claim to the Gila before the river flows into neighboring Arizona.  There, it gets sucked dry before it reaches its confluence with the Colorado River near Yuma.

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Originally published September 27, 2011 at National Geographic

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