Gila Watershed Partnership

Posted: Apr 3, 2006
Written by: 
April Reese

Southwestern New Mexico

Objective: To improve watershed health and water quality of the Upper Gila River through locally led efforts.

Participants: State and federal agencies, local governments, ranchers, conservation groups

History: The current Gila Watershed Partnership is the second incarnation of the group. The first attempt at a collaborative group aimed at restoring the health of the Gila watershed, initiated about six years ago, "failed miserably," said Mike Matush of the New Mexico Environment Department's Surface Water Quality Bureau in Silver City. That effort, called the "Gila Monster," fizzled after failing to overcome deep mistrust and long-standing contentions between government agencies, ranchers, and environmentalists. The group brought in two different facilitators, but neither was successful, partly because they were not from the area.

"This is what all our constituents agreed upon: they would never get in the same room again," Matush said.

Then, about a year ago, with the upper Gila River found to be in violation of federal water quality standards for turbidity, heavy metals, fecal coliform, and pH levels, and problems like erosion and invasive species spreading through the watershed, Matush decided to try again. He hoped to secure funding for watershed restoration from the Environmental Protection Agency, which provides grants for such work under section 319 of the federal Clean Water Act. But a prerequisite for the grant was to have in place a watershed restoration plan with local input.

This time, Matush tried a different approach. Instead of attempting to reach consensus on how to improve the watershed in face-to-face meetings, participants use e-mail to receive information and questions from state officials. Their feedback informs the shape the draft plan will take.

"We're a pivot source," Matush said. "We take in information and distribute it among stakeholders. Since no one was willing to collaborate in this part of the world, this is our best bet for improving the watershed with local input."

Despite the lack of opportunity to develop trust among participants through face-to-face meetings—or perhaps because of it—the e-mail-based partnership appears to be working. Matush and partnership coordinator Ellen Soles say participants of all stripes are weighing in on the restoration plan, and the partnership is able to reach more people and distribute more information this way. In the first incarnation of the group, some participants would have to drive two or three hours for an evening meeting, making attending them daunting for even the most dedicated stakeholders.

Where most collaborative groups emphasize the importance of regular in-person contact and a development of mutual trust among diverse interests, in the case of the Gila Watershed Partnership, keeping participants out of the same room and relying instead on e-mail and phone calls has actually created a more harmonious dynamic and has allowed the group to get more done.

"People who said it would never work are now contributing in a positive way," Matush said, noting that the partnership now numbers 200 members.

The partnership completed a draft of the "restoration action plan" for the Upper Gila River watershed in November of 2005, and Soles is now incorporating comments from participants in the partnership, often attending meetings of various interest groups to garner input. The group has until Oct. 30 to submit its final plan to EPA.

The Gila Watershed Partnership, NM is defined by the upper portion of its namesake watershed, which begins high in the Gila Mountains in southwestern New Mexico, just west of the Continental Divide and stretches westward to the Arizona border. While the Gila Watershed Partnership, NM focuses on the 5,000 square miles of the upper watershed, a separate Gila Watershed Partnership has sprung up on the Arizona side of the border to address the needs of the 7,200-square-mile lower watershed.

The upper Gila watershed is known for its rugged mountains, high plains, and arid valleys. Most of the land in the watershed is federally owned, with the Gila National Forest comprising a large chunk of the New Mexico side of the watershed, and the rest is held by private ranches, tribal governments or the states. Ranching, farming, mining, and recreation are the main industries in the watershed.

Willow flycatcher
Photo by Suzanne Langridge, USGS
Accomplishments: Even though the partnership's watershed restoration plan is not yet complete, due to the large amount of territory involved and the need for improved water quality in the watershed EPA agreed to provide 319 funds to the partnership so that the group can begin carrying out on-the-ground projects and other initiatives.

So far, the partnership has completed projects aimed at reducing erosion, such as planting willows and rushes in riparian areas to decrease runoff, and restoring habitat for the federally protected Southwestern willow flycatcher. It is also conducting a fluvial geomorphology study.

Those improvements likely would not have been possible—or at least not as well accepted—if various interests had not provided input on the effort, participants speculated.

"The greatest accomplishment is that nobody has tried to get in our way so far," Matush said. "Before, they did. Now, we have people helping."

"There hasn't been anything stopping projects on either side," added Maartha Woodward, who helps coordinate projects on private lands through the Grants Soil and Water Conservation District. "I think people feel they have an input to the projects."

In several cases, concerns about a proposed project have been assuaged after a public meeting was held clarifying the details of the project, Woodward said, adding that education is an important part of the partnership's efforts.

Challenges/constraints: Despite the high level of participation from various interests in the partnership's new, Internet-based incarnation, the general public has been slow to accept the effort. Some area residents are skeptical of government programs in general, and "it's been a challenge to get the public to accept that we're trying to put a management plan together that helps everybody," Matush said.

Furthermore, while the partnership has succeeded in garnering feedback on how to improve the watershed from various interests, they have yet to work on a project together, Soles said, adding that she is hoping to bring people together to work collaboratively on future projects. The New Mexico partnership also hopes to work together with the Arizona partnership eventually, she added.

Addressing the needs of such a large area—which is home to endangered species like the Southwestern willow flycatcher and an experimental population of reintroduced Mexican gray wolves, as well as a growing human population—is also daunting.

The partnership is exploring the idea of forming a 501(c)3 organization, but it is unclear whether participants would support such an effort considering the contentious history of the group, Soles said.

For more information:

Arizona Department of Water Resources

University of Arizona's web page about the partnership

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