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The Future of the Gila

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Peter GlobenskyBy Peter Globensky


Fed for millennia by the rain and snow-pack high in the magnificent Mogollon Mountains of southwestern New Mexico, the Gila River begins its 650-mile meandering journey to western Arizona. At times lunging head-long over boulders or prancing over cobbles, or drifting and lingering in deep pools, at times a torrent or a riffle but always moving, this life-rendering artery is one of the last relatively free-flowing rivers in this part of the continent. To date and despite the increasingly voracious appetites for yet more water from the denizens who would exploit it, this river has so far survived the death of a thousand cups as it struggles and limps its way barely to the once mighty Colorado River, but a shallow of its former self.

Despite having once been navigable from its mouth to the Arizona – New Mexico border, its flow through New Mexico continues to support a complex, diverse and important ecosystem sustaining a wealth of natural and human economies. No less important, the river’s intrinsic beauty and the grandeur through which it courses nourish the human spirit.   

Relatively new to the Southwest, my wife and I decided to attend the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, a travelling caravan of films locally sponsored by the Gila Conservation Coalition. It provided an opportunity to learn about the fabled Gila and other efforts across the country which are damning the damns on the last of the wild rivers. As it has had to in the past, the Coalition is again mobilizing support to protect the Gila, this time to prevent the Interstate Stream Commission and the millions available under the recently amended 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act from doubling water withdrawals from one of the last wild rivers in New Mexico.

The über-costly plan ostensibly required to satisfy an increasingly thirsty population and the growing water demands of agricultural and livestock production proposes to drain over 4.5 billion gallons a year from the Gila annually. That is about equal to 7,000 water-filled Olympic-size swimming pools. . . each year and every year. And that is on top of what is already withdrawn or diverted through water-rights from the beleaguered river to satisfy the needs and wants of the 5 million plus people that live within its watershed. One begins to better understand the worry of the Coalition when it says, “recently urban and agricultural interests intend to take more than the river can give."

True to the Festival and Coalition’s intent, a number of films illustrated inspirational stories of how, in Margaret Mead fashion, “. . . a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.” There were stories told of how citizens organized and successfully fought against distant urban bureaucrats who thought nothing of damning a faraway river, diverting a lake or pipelining water to quench parched throats or grow kumquats.

As we watched the films however, I could not help but think that this time around, it may be the beginning of a losing battle. Water bureaucrats don’t just dream up these mega-projects. Without deft, they are responding to powerful and highly vested interests—the insatiable, often wasteful water demands of an ever-increasing population in the watershed combined with the swelling business-end of water required to keep ranchers and farmers afloat. Despite the laudable efforts of the Coalition to put water conservation front and centre as a means of averting yet another ill-advised and expensive mega withdrawal scheme, there is every reason to believe that demand may be on a trajectory to quickly outpace supply. The history of surface water management in the Southwest seems to be written as an economic treatise on helter-skelter increasing demand imposed upon a decreasing supply.

But this is hardly the greatest challenge to the Coalition or to the River. Ironically, it is nature herself that poses the greatest menace to the survival of the river as Gaia begins to manifest the scourges of our misuse and the neglect that we have heaped upon her.

As a species we are not very adept at connecting the dots—particularly if they are on a canvas where the breadth of it exceeds our peripheral vision. The real issue far surpasses in magnitude what we have done or are planning to do to the Gila. It focuses on what we are already doing to substantially alter the climate and weather patterns of the planet by our ravenous addiction to fossil fuels. Connecting these dots to the Gila is not an encouraging exercise: More greenhouse gases…more global-warming… more extreme weather…warmer climate... hotter temperatures…increased evaporation…more droughts...less rain...less snow...less snow pack...less water...less river. . . . This arranged marriage made in hell between greater water demand and less availability does not bode well for the long-term future of the Gila. The prognosis suggests that life-support may be required.

Fighting global warming is like playing political Whac-a-Mole. Stop the Keystone here, whack down a new coal plant there, fight fracking everywhere. And so often, we conclude that Pogo was right – “We have met the enemy and he is us.” But if we are to keep one eye on the Gila, the other must be firmly fixed on those who continue to feed our obsession with oil and the oiligarchs and the destructive climate deniers who peddle it.

Peter Globensky is the former Chief Executive Officer and Director General of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, a Canadian inter-governmental agency promoting cooperative legislative and regulatory action on the environment. He recently completed an assignment as Chief Editor and Contributor to an Environmental Impact Assessment on the Nelson Rover in northern Manitoba. He has also served as a Senior Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister of Canada and Chief of Staff to the Minister of External Relations and International Development prior to becoming the first Director of Programs and Advocacy for the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development created by the Parliament of Canada. He currently serves as a national Trustee of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Association, is a member of Environment North and Citizens for a Sustainable Planet where he lives in Thunder Bay, Canada.

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