The Gila River, as it runs out of the Mogollon Mountains in southwestern New Mexico, typically isn't a large river. Where it pours out of the Gila Wilderness, upstream of the towns of Cliff and Gila, it's the kind of river where kids can splash around on a hot summer day. A place to submerge in the oh-so-clear water and kiss someone for the very first time. To look for fish, to float and dream and stare up at the leaves and sky.

Although this stretch of the Gila River is outside the designated wilderness area, many consider it a de facto wilderness.
Although this stretch of the Gila River is outside the designated wilderness area, many consider it a de facto wilderness. | Laura Paskus

But when storms set loose the Gila, it becomes an entirely different species, ripping up 80-year old cottonwoods and sycamores, wedging them into 20-foot tall piles that reshape the floodplain. It rips out bridges and culverts, lays waste to anything in its path.

That's because in New Mexico, the Upper Gila isn't dammed, though irrigators do siphon off water for farms. Then, downstream, the hard-working river typically dries up long before meeting the Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona.

The Gila is also a river that most New Mexicans have probably never visited, but in the past decade have developed fond feelings and fiery opinions for, all because of a federal subsidy that sent a small confederation of state and local officials scrambling to build a diversion there.

"It's discouraging," the late Dutch Salmon told me in 2016, two years after the state voted to build a structure to suck water from the river. "It seems to me, the project is as egregious as it is implausible."

At that time, Dutch couldn't imagine the proposal standing up to scrutiny. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, agencies need to study the environmental and economic impacts of a project. "I don't see it going through the NEPA process and surviving," he said.

Courtesy Cherie Salmon

Dutch was right, in a way. After five years and millions of dollars, proponents never came up with a plan solid enough for study. And the weight of the project collapsed in upon itself.

With no plans in place, support from the federal government evaporated. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, acting on a campaign pledge, vetoed spending on the project. And this year, the new members of a state commission voted to end work on studies for the diversion.

The big diversion is dead in the water.

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When it comes to the Gila, there's a very long story.

I'll skip the US Supreme Court battles and details from the early to mid-20th century and jump to the 2000s, when Arizona was settling water rights with the Gila River Indian Community. To do so, it needed federal money and support from New Mexico Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman. When Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004, it also allowed New Mexico to take advantage of some long-promised water rights on the Gila and its tributary, the San Francisco. (Long-promised meaning that in the 1960s, when Arizona needed Congress to pass the Central Arizona Project Act, New Mexico's then-State Engineer Steve Reynolds squeezed extra water rights for the state out of those negotiations.)

But those water rights came with a catch: New Mexico didn't own them outright and couldn't just pull water from the river and pour it onto fields or through pipes. Instead we needed a downstream partner willing to trade. And the 2004 law finally set that up: Upstream, New Mexicans could draw that water out of the Gila, and then pay an exchange fee to the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, which would use that money to buy Colorado River water.

Complicated, right? But there is one very important thing to remember: the law came with a pile of federal cash.

"We were like, 'Shoot, this is serious,'" says Gila Resources Information Project (GRIP) executive director Allyson Siwik, recalling when she and a few others in Silver City first heard about the proposed legislation and appropriation in 2003. "All the iterations before—Hooker, Connor, Mangas—none of those came with any money."

Decades earlier, the federal government had proposed three different dams on the Gila.

"That was always the big deal, no one actually had the money to construct the project, it was just too expensive," she says. This time would be different, though: "If there's money for it, obviously there's going to be a huge incentive and a huge drive to get the diversion built."

GRIP, the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance, and the Center for Biological Diversity decided then, Siwik says, to put some renewed muscle behind the Gila Conservation Coalition, a loose group of volunteers Dutch had assembled in 1984 to fight Connor Dam. They started applying for grants, researching, recruiting volunteers, reaching out to technical experts and attorneys, and pushing back against the rhetoric coming from one particular New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission employee, Craig Roepke, for whom the diversion seemed like a personal crusade.

After the Congress adopted the law, Siwik says Roepke and other state officials immediately pounded the pavement in southwestern New Mexico, rallying support for a diversion. The 2004 appropriation made it clear that building a diversion was just one option for the state to meet water needs in the four southwestern counties, Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Luna. But the federal subsidy was structured in a way that New Mexico would receive more money if it decided to build a diversion on the Gila—roughly $100 million versus $66 million.

For years, through the administrations of Governors Bill Richardson and Susana Martinez, the Gila Conservation Coalition, along with groups like Conservation Voters New Mexico, battled for a seat at the table in discussions and a say in the Legislature on spending. The allowance of public participation by the state waxed and waned, but by 2011, Siwik says more and more people were involved. And not just activists or environmentalists. Ranchers, farmers, the mining company—people from all walks of life in the four-county area were joining the process.

"Then Martinez came in and completely threw out the multi-stakeholder process Richardson had set up," she says. "[Roepke] was basically in charge and set up a very top-down process."

The state had encouraged cities, irrigators—any stakeholders in the region—to propose projects addressing water needs. These included not just diversion proposals, but municipal water conservation programs, irrigation efficiency projects, and even forest and watershed restoration projects.

Ten percent of one of the pots of federal money went toward those non-diversion projects—and then in 2014, the Interstate Stream Commission voted to approve a diversion, estimated at that time to cost over $1 billion.

At the meeting in Albuquerque, when commissioners made their plans official, Dutch was disappointed but not surprised. At the time, he told me, "We just got nine misguided individuals [on the commission] and we'll hope to educate them better in the coming months and years ahead. I don't have any doubts about what will prevail in the end and keep our river as we've known it to be."

By then, Dutch's battle with Parkinson's was noticeable. But he still sparked with the energy of the man who 30 years earlier had set off on a 200-mile long trip down the Gila to draw attention to the travesty of the proposed Connor Dam. In a cheap Pullman canoe, Dutch brought along his dog and a black-and-white cat.

The trip started off in the pines and mountains and ended up in the Sonoran desert. In New Mexico's upper stretches of the river, he told me, there's tremendous diversity. "It's probably the only place in the country you can see an elk and a coatimundi in the same day," he said. "Or catch a wild trout and a flathead catfish out of the same pool." He taught his son to fly fish in the Gila National Forest and spoke with pride of his son tracking down a mule deer buck by himself at age 16.

An avid fisherman, hunter, writer and a self-described "redneck environmentalist," Dutch had served on the Interstate Stream Commission himself, as well as the Game Commission. He was friends with ranchers and farmers, environmentalists and hippies.

At every meeting I attended over the years, Dutch was there, reassuring people not to worry about the fate of the Gila River. At the time, I assumed he was giving me requisite sound bites for coverage of the battle.

Now, I understand better he was just clear in his vision for the future of the river.

"I don't think 'discouraged' is a word I would ever use about Dutch, in anything he did," says his wife Cherie Salmon. "People might get…I wouldn't say pissed at him…but it didn't bother him," she says. "He'd shake hands, say 'See you at the next meeting.' He was not one to hold a grudge against someone who said something he didn't agree with." He also didn't care if people disagreed with him.

"He didn't want to change minds," she says. "He just felt he was on the right side of the diversion issue, and he was going to fight til he got it done."

Recently, I listened to an interview I recorded with Dutch in 2014. I'd asked him if he was reluctant to share some of his best fishing spots—like in the Upper Box, a riparian canyon with both pine trees and desert plants. He agreed that was typically hard to do: "Except in the case of the Gila," he said. "I'll give up a few secrets if it will gain us a few converts."

He went on to talk about the bass and catfish. Black hawks and vermillion flycatchers. "It's just a lovely place to go—it's not a designated wilderness, just a de facto wilderness—and it's where they want to put the diversion," he said. "It's a jewel about to be protected or smashed, depending on who wins."

I'll always remember leaving a meeting in July 2014, walking out of the gymnasium of the Cliff School with him. The humid air crackled with the electricity of a brewing storm. About 100 people had been inside, listening to state officials talk about flow models and macroinvertebrates and Bureau of Reclamation analysts estimate how much diversion projects cost.

At the meeting that night, there were a lot of questions and not many answers. But it was clear state officials like Roepke wanted the diversion built—and Bureau of Reclamation officials in their support role were providing analysis the state didn't want to hear.

As Dutch and I stood at the edge of the darkening parking lot, he told me, "But don't worry. We'll get 'em."

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That billion-dollar project wasn't much of a plan, and it was rife with engineering flaws, which were pointed out by the Bureau of Reclamation and by the former Interstate Stream Commissioner, Norman Gaume.

Norman Gaume became a key opponent of the project, lending his technical expertise and filing Open Meetings Act lawsuits for transparency violations.
Norman Gaume became a key opponent of the project, lending his technical expertise and filing Open Meetings Act lawsuits for transparency violations. | Laura Paskus

Gaume became a key opponent of the project, lending his technical expertise, filing Open Meetings Act lawsuits for transparency violations, pointing out that most years, the Gila didn't have water to spare—and local irrigators already weren't using all the water they had rights to. With his sheets of analysis and memos, and his engineering background, it's fair to say that Gaume was the most painful and persistent of burrs between the toes of project proponents.

But the state started spending that federal money, mostly on engineering firms and attorneys. In 2015, it also created the New Mexico Central Arizona Project Entity, a group of counties, towns, and irrigation districts tasked with planning and building the diversion and reimbursing the federal government for its operation, maintenance and repair costs.

Dutch, Siwik, Gaume and many, many others kept showing up to public meetings, working on analysis, and building more alliances. State legislators like Sens. Peter Wirth and Howie Morales introduced bills to rein in spending, increase transparency, spend the money on non-diversion projects, and impose oversight. But year after year, the Legislature failed to pass those bills.

The CAP Entity did scale back the billion-dollar pipedream. But it never came up with a fully developed plan, even though its members really wanted one. And even though the state spent $17 million of that federal subsidy.

There were a few controls built into the process: Under the terms of the Arizona Water Settlements Act, New Mexico had five years to come up with a plan for the diversion that would also give the Bureau of Reclamation time for environmental and economic studies. New Mexico could ask for an extension, but only if it showed it wasn't responsible for the planning delays.

But when the time came in 2019 for the CAP Entity to submit its plans to the federal government, instead it asked for an extension.

Not only did U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt reject that request, the Bureau of Reclamation composed a 23-page memo laying out all the CAP Entity's delays and changes, the "insufficient information" it provided, and the "missing and unknown project details."

On the state side, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham line-item vetoed $1.698 million in New Mexico Unit funding for the diversion that year. And in June 2020, the Interstate Stream Commission voted to end funding for the diversion's environmental studies.

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State Sen. Peter Wirth has served in the Legislature for 16 years, and discussions over the Gila have spanned his entire tenure. "It's tragic that huge bucket of money has gone toward engineering that didn't work, a whole bunch of legal fees, consultants," he says. Instead money could have gone to water projects the state already needs to fund: "It was a lost opportunity."

Now, it's important to stay focused on funding non-diversion projects that meet the needs of people in those four counties. Doing so could provide a roadmap for the future. Building dams or trying to "engineer" a way out of water challenges is an outdated way of looking at water planning, when compared with efficiency, conservation and protecting forests and rivers themselves.

"It's been an incredible journey and it's not over," he says. "There's still a bucket of money sitting there to spend, and it's time to put that money to work on non-diversion projects and then move on to the next challenge."

Now, with somewhere between $85-90 million left to spend, the state is faced with making new choices in southwestern New Mexico.

Currently, the Interstate Stream Commission is in dispute resolution with the CAP Entity over previous agreements, says commission Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen. It is hammering out how to return funds and envisioning future expenditures; also it must modify past agreements to direct the entity to work on non-diversion projects.

Some members of the CAP Entity have said they're unwilling to do so.

Schmidt-Petersen acknowledges that members are angry, and also that it was the state—the previous iteration of the Interstate Stream Commission—that directed the entity to work on a diversion to the exclusion of any other projects.

Once the conflicts have been resolved, Schmidt-Petersen says commissioners can start laying out criteria for new water projects in southwestern New Mexico. That's not likely to happen until early next year, and he is hopeful the proposals that do come in will be for projects that are "shovel ready."

Schmidt-Petersen, who took over as director of the Interstate Stream Commission during the Lujan Grisham administration, acknowledges the process has been divisive, for a long time.

He has long known people on all sides of the issue, he says. "They really are leaders in their community, they're successful in their community, and they're trying to do the best that they can with the resources they have," he says. "I see that with all of them, even if their focus is somewhat different."

Thinking about how to spend the remaining money, and build water projects in the region that will serve the broader community, he says that everyone will have to come together.

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For her part, Siwik hopes the Interstate Stream Commission will set up a process to guarantee that what's left of the federal subsidy will meet the greatest water needs in the four counties and benefit the greatest number of people.

"The CAP Entity wanted to spend all the money on a diversion to benefit a handful of irrigators, and not leave any money for the other projects, and that's not fair," she says. "We need some fairness in the process, and hopefully the ISC has heard that message from people."

The headwaters of the Gila River lie in the mountains of southwestern New Mexico. Then the river flows to Arizona, where it meets the Colorado River near Yuma.
The headwaters of the Gila River lie in the mountains of southwestern New Mexico. Then the river flows to Arizona, where it meets the Colorado River near Yuma.

In some ways, the defeat of the diversion has amplified a certain amount of nastiness in the community—a divisiveness that Siwik says was fueled by Reopke and the Interstate Stream Commission when it was building support for diversion.

Environmental groups never sued to stop the project, though they showed up to meetings, lobbied state legislators and organized festivals. Despite the lack of any legal action—or even legislative success—project proponents often blamed "million-dollar environmentalists" for delays and problems.

For years, Siwik says proponents, including Roepke, perpetuated a narrative of fear and scarcity. Fear that Arizona would take New Mexico's water. Fear that there wasn't enough water to go around—even though population and demands for water in southwestern New Mexico are projected to decline.

At a recent CAP Entity meeting, after the Interstate Stream Commission voted to end funding for the diversion's environmental studies, one member called opponents an infection in the community that was spreading like a cancer.

Like many people these days—agog at the state of the country and how people treat one another—she seems unsure what to say.

"Talk about dehumanizing language, it's so terrible," she says. "Before, it seemed like that was just at the national level." Over the past four years, tensions have grown worse locally, too. And she struggles with what it means to cooperate with people who don't simply disagree or have different needs.

"For many years, we were trying to collaborate and cooperate, and then that ended when the Martinez administration came in [and ended the multi-stakeholder process,]" she says. "Personally, I feel like collaboration can work, but I don't know….If you are calling your neighbor a cancer? Or an infection? That is not collaborative language."

It's been a long haul and it's yet not over, she says. "Now, we have more fights in terms of making sure our community gets taken care of and that we spend the money," she says, adding that there's even more at stake: "I hope we can salvage our democracy, I hope we can talk to one another."

And, she says, "I just feel it at the bottom of my heart, that we have to save this river."