Even in a world divided by priorities and politics, in New Mexico many people of various beliefs do hold some values in common — particularly the need to protect water.
Those aren’t just platitudes, either. Take a resolution that passed the Grant County Board of Commissioners earlier this month, supporting federal legislation to protect the Gila River through the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a 1968-era statute signed by President Lyndon Johnson.
Now, commissioners want Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich to introduce legislation to designate portions of the Gila and San Francisco and their tributaries as wild and scenic, something we’re sure the senators will support. They, and the people in Grant County, understand that protecting the Gila River is the best method of securing it for their children, grandchildren and all the children to come.
As Bayard Mayor Chon Fierro said in a statement from the Gila River Wild and Scenic Coalition: “It is important that we call for the protection of the Gila River because we have been going there to fish, hunt and picnic with our families for many years, and we want to continue to do so while securing it for future generations.”
This is the kind of resolution that might pass with little notice in liberal Santa Fe, but it speaks to what unites us that such support for a wild river is taking place in the more conservative Grant County. Community residents — everyone from sportsmen, small business owners, local governments, conservation groups and tribal members — came together to ask their local governing body to help get the ball rolling. Now, of course, Congress needs to act.
The proposal would designate some 436 miles of the Gila and San Francisco rivers, along with their tributaries, as wild and scenic. As such, the rivers can continue to flow with the strength to sustain local, rural economies in traditional activities such as grazing, ranching, hunting and fishing.
At the same time, a wild river is more attractive to outdoor recreation enthusiasts interested in adventure or relaxation. With the growing emphasis on the outdoor economy as a way to boost New Mexico, it makes sense to protect our wild areas. The Gila, particularly, is unique because it remains free-flowing — the last such river in New Mexico and one of the few in the lower 48 states.
The coming together of this coalition is a lesson not just in uniting people over common goals, it can serve as a template for other environmental groups. Build coalitions from the bottom up, with actual community members taking charge. When a county commission is faced with a group of potential voters calling for a particular position — in this case, river protection — it’s a lot harder to say no than when the advocates speaking drove in from Santa Fe or Albuquerque. The vote was not unanimous, but a 4-1 majority demonstrates broad agreement.
The strength of the coalition also signals that not all local communities and residents are on board with the multimillion-dollar plan to divert Gila River water. People there want to protect their river. Bureaucrats at the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, which is planning the diversion project, need to be persuaded to abandon this boondoggle.
This vote by Grant County commissioners is a welcome one. It could help save the Gila River.