U.S. Water News Online
PHOENIX -- A century ago, the Gila River flowed nearly 650
miles from the high country of western New Mexico and eastern Arizona
to the Colorado River near Yuma.
It drained most of Arizona, collecting water from the state's
southern two-thirds. Until 1853, it marked the United States'
boundary with Mexico.
But now, the once-mighty river has most of its natural flow halted
at Coolidge Dam and none of its major tributaries make it to the main
Farmers and ranchers continue to dip into the river to irrigate
crops and support cattle.
Mining companies found rich veins of ore in the mountains that
feed the river and its tributaries and staked a claim to some of the
Miners and farmers have left behind contaminants that poisoned
stretches of the Gila, which experts say is dying along its lower
"The river's a mess," said Larry Stevens, a Flagstaff-based river
ecologist who now consults on restoration and engineering projects.
"The question is: What do we do? Let the river go? A lot of the
oldest Arizona families are farming on that flood plain. You can
engineer just about anything with a little water and a backhoe. The
thing to focus on most clearly is what values do you want to see come
out of that system?"
In Graham and Greenlee counties, farmers and ranchers use an
estimated 82 billion gallons of water a year, or about 94 percent of
the two counties' total water budget. Municipal and industrial users
split the remaining 6 percent.
The Gila River delivers more than half of that supply in an
average year, but wells make up the difference most years, especially
dry years like this one. What's not known is how big a dent those
wells put in the river's below-surface supply.
Like most Arizona rivers, the Gila lacks protection from wells
that tap into its groundwater sources. State laws don't link surface
water and groundwater, nor do they require owners of small wells to
report how much water they draw. Unchecked pumping has dried up
stretches of the San Pedro River and threatens the Verde River.
On the upper Gila, most of the wells are small, which means no
state agency regulates them. Not every well affects the river, but
without the laws to monitor them and without better information about
rural Arizona groundwater, it's unclear how much flow the wells take
from the river.
A proposed water project in New Mexico could force Arizona farmers
to drill even more wells. Until now, there were no water diversion
projects across the state line, but a provision of the landmark Gila
River water settlement approved in late 2004 gave New Mexico the
right to keep up to 14,000 acre feet of water a year, or about 4.5
That may not sound like much next to the 82 billion gallons
eastern Arizona farmers use. But in a dry year, it could mean the
difference between water in the river and a dry channel.
Environmental groups in both states are urging New Mexico to avoid
any plan that would reduce flow and hurt habitat.
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