The Gila River is one of the longest rivers in the West, originating above 10,000 feet in the Mogollon Mountains of the Gila Wilderness and from the headwaters of the Black Range in the equally wild, Aldo Leopold Wilderness to the east. Originally flowing 500 miles to its confluence with the Colorado River near the Mexico border, the Gila is now drained dry halfway through its journey due to large irrigation and municipal diversions in Arizona.
Where it still flows wild in New Mexico, the Gila supports a vibrant riparian forest community of cottonwoods, sycamores, willows and alders. Black hawks, eagles, elk, javelina, cougars, and black bears, all roam the river corridor and Ponderosa pine forests that climb the rugged canyon hillsides.
The Gila River provides a flyway and nesting ground for an array of neotropical migrant birds, like the Southwest Willow Flycatcher and as a wintering over habitat for many northern species, like the Gila Woodpecker.
The three forks of the Gila River Headwaters, the West, Middle and East, are dotted with natural hot springs, and are the home of the endangered Gila trout, loach minnow and the rare Mexican spotted owl. Sport fisherman, horse packers, hikers and boaters all enjoy the vast canyon landscapes and lush river habitat.
But New Mexico’s Gila River, one of the last free flowing river stretches in the western US, is under threat from proposals for development and diversion. If the water project proposed by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission is built, an average of 14,000 acre-feet of water per year, double New Mexico’s current withdrawals, could be siphoned from the Gila watershed. A project of that magnitude would severely impact the Gila’s unique ecology and threaten sensitive species that depend on the natural flood cycles of the river.
When completed, Heart of the Gila will make the rounds throughout New Mexico and nationally to educate the public about the critical importance of the Gila River and the need to protect the river from threats such as the large water withdrawals authorized by the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA). Our ultimate goal is long-term protection, using legislative approaches such as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act or the Wilderness Act. Heart of the Gila will help us build a groundswell of support to protect the Gila River forever.
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