It was one of the biggest jailbreaks of World War 2, when 25 German prisoners of war tunneled out of a camp in southern Arizona in 1944. Eventually all were captured including one group that had smuggled a collapsible kayak out the tunnel. Their plan, based on an Arizona map they’d filched, was to escape to Mexico by water…floating down the blue line the map called the Gila River.
Unfortunately for the escapees, even in 1944 the lower half of the Gila ran dry or barely damp most of the year. No water meant no escape.
The big flaw in their plan was timing. They were about 100 years too late. In the mid 19th century, the Gila River was navigable by large riverboats from its mouth to near Phoenix and by smaller craft from Phoenix nearly to the Arizona – New Mexico border.
Today, a brace of dams on the Gila and several tributaries have diverted enough water to reduce the flow of water down the river by 86%, and the conventional estimate is most of the lower half of the 649-mile Gila River is, at best, an intermittent stream –
often a dry gulch like the one that stymied the escaping German POWs.
Those dams have produced benefits for Arizona farmers with irrigated fields, and developers who’ve built suburbs around Phoenix and Tucson. But for the Gila River itself, in Arizona, diversion has meant diminishment.
Which brings us to the upper reaches of the Gila, and its tributary, the San Francisco River in the state of New Mexico which claims a little less than 6% of the Gila River watershed but which has – for the most part – kept its share of the Gila “wild” and un-diverted. There are a few “push-up dams,” lines of bulldozed rock and mud that direct river water to irrigation ditches called acequias.
But they’re up for replacement as part of grand Gila River Diversion Plan pushed for most of her eight years in office by Republican Governor Susana Martinez. Her successor, Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham wants to pull the plug on the Gila diversion and redirect the money to other projects.
Critics charge the diversion will damage a uniquely beautiful stream and its ecosystem, endangering dozens of species of birds, fish and insects. They also warn, climate change may mean the Gila will not have enough water to make the diversion work financially or hydrologically.
So far, an estimated $14 million has been spent on planning the Gila diversion. But even the planning remains incomplete even as an end-of-year deadline looms for approval of the project from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
Laura Paskus is an environmental reporter with long experience in New Mexico and the Southwest. She currently files regular reports for New Mexico Public Television’s New Mexico in Focus. Paskus ran the Environmental Project of the New Mexico Political Report and is writing a book that’s based on a year-long project, “At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate,” done for New Mexico In Depth, for whom she continues to report. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera America, Ms. Magazine, Indian Country Today, The Progressive, Columbia Journalism Review, and High Country News, where she also served as Assistant Editor.