Snakes are just the start…
Two snake species, the narrow-headed gartersnake and northern Mexican gartersnakes, live in wetland areas alongside rivers, where they hunt for tadpoles and minnows. They’ve have suffered catastrophic population declines in recent decades as over 90 percent of their riverside habitats have disappeared due to overgrazing, water diversions, wildfires and drought.
Now, the Gila River, an area proposed for long-term protection under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, is under threat of diversion for agricultural use, threatening the habitat of these snakes, five other threatened or endangered species, one of the largest concentrations of breeding birds in North America and the most intact native fish community in the Colorado River Basin.
The proposed diversion of the Gila would skim peaks off of the river’s modest floods and pipe the water to an off-channel reservoir, weakening the river’s critical connection to its floodplain, and eliminating a required minimum flow that prevents dewatering the river and extends the period of dewatering during ecologically critical times. Declining groundwater levels caused by the diversion and new groundwater pumping could threaten the health of the cottonwood-sycamore-willow bosque, some of the last remaining intact riparian forest in the Lower Colorado River Basin.
Although there is no clearly identified need for this extra water supply, the diversion, supported by New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), would help the state stake its claim to the Gila before the river flows into neighboring Arizona. There, the river gets sucked dry before it reaches its confluence with the Colorado River near Yuma.
The Gila Conservation Coalition, and local stakeholders have submitted to the ISC more than a dozen alternate projects for meeting the future water supply needs of New Mexico’s four southwestern counties without the diversion. They include irrigation efficiency improvements, water reuse and municipal conservation projects, which would cost far less than the diversion scheme and safeguard the health of the river.