Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.

On Tuesday New Mexico Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján introduced legislation to designate the Gila River as a Wild And Scenic River, which would protect the watershed from mining and agricultural interests in the region. The Gila River is one of the last remaining free-flowing rivers and tributary systems to the Colorado River. 

The Gila River has experienced pressure from outside mining and agricultural interests as water dwindles in the Southwest. The river is in the heart of one of New Mexico’s most productive mining regions and next to the massive Chino Mine, located a few miles west of Silver City. The river’s route flows through arid grasslands and cattle country before ending its journey in the Colorado River. As one of the few sources of water in the region, the river has managed to remain undeveloped thanks to its source being located deep in the expansive Gila Wilderness.

“Some of the clearest and most visible signs of the climate crisis in New Mexico and across the West are evident in the rapidly diminishing flows on the Colorado River and its shrinking reservoirs. In the face of this, our effort to protect one of the few remaining wild and natural stretches of water in the greater Colorado River watershed could not be more urgent,” Heinrich said.

The urgency from the New Mexico lawmakers comes after the Colorado River recorded one of its worst years on record. Some 40 million people depend on the Colorado River, and for many, this green vein of the West may no longer be able to support desert metropolises like Phoenix or Las Vegas. Senator Heinrich and Senator Lujan hope that by designating the Gila River as a wild and scenic river, Southwest New Mexico’s largest tributary system may avoid the same fate as the overdeveloped Colorado River. “With such a unique impact across New Mexico, it’s critical that the Gila River is protected and has the federal support needed to combat the threats of the climate crisis,”  Luján said. 

Both senators emphasized the economic potential and benefits for the region if the river is protected for future generations. “I’m proud to be reintroducing the M.H. Dutch Salmon Greater Gila Wild and Scenic River Act alongside Senator Luján to provide the Gila and San Francisco watersheds with our nation’s highest form of protection and stewardship. Wild and Scenic River designation will support enhanced water quality, economic development, increased recreation opportunities, and healthy populations of fish and wildlife,” Heinrich said.

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Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.