STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We've been hearing a lot about the effects of the drought in California. And of course, the fight for water is also intense in the desert Southwest. In rural New Mexico, the battle is over the Gila River. The state has decided to divert that river and capture its water for potential use by residents and farmers and industry. Opponents say this move will be too costly and also hurt the environment. Reporter Stina Sieg of member station KJZZ explains.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLOWING WATER)
STINA SIEG, BYLINE: This is what controversy sounds like in southwestern New Mexico though it's easy to forget the drama, standing on the sandy banks of the Gila River. It's meandering through a remote but popular camping spot called Turkey Creek.
TODD SCHULKE: It's a wild river. It doesn't have much development on it.
SIEG: That's Todd Schulke, explaining what makes the Gila different from most waterways in the Southwest.
SCHULKE: There are some little, tiny diversion dams for small-scale irrigation. But there's no big dams that, you know, change the character of the river. And the river flows the way it's flowed forever.
SIEG: And Schulke, who co-founded the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, is fighting to keep it that way. A diversion could be built on this very spot. It wouldn't be a traditional dam but a concrete structure over which water would flow. At flood stages, some of the water would make its way through miles of underground pipes and eventually to homes and farms. Opponents like Schulke think that's a terrible idea.
SCHULKE: Destroying the Gila River and paying a billion dollars for a very small amount of water just - it just doesn't make sense. It's just - it's kind of ridiculous.
SIEG: That price, by the way, is fiercely debated. So far, the state has said yes to $128 million in federal funds to help pay for the project - a project supporters say is vital to keeping this area alive. The town of Cliff was built on the river and isn't far from the diversion site. Standing on a hill, local resident Linda Stailey remembers what this place looked like decades ago.
LINDA STAILEY: Rows and rows of corn, acres and acres of alfalfa - it was absolutely beautiful.
SIEG: Now it's mostly grazing area or not used at all. Stailey explains that many residents simply don't have the water rights to farm anymore.
STAILEY: Our young people can't stay here. They have to leave to find work.
SIEG: Due to some very complicated history, most of this water actually belongs to the Gila River Indian community near Phoenix, hours away. New Mexico can use some of this water, but only if it builds the diversion and pays for additional water to be delivered to the tribe through a web of Arizona canals. It's complex and expensive. But Stailey isn't fazed.
STAILEY: Doesn't matter - you know, we're not going to survive very long without water, individually or as a society.
MANAGER CHARLES JACKSON: You know, the reality is I've had industries come through here looking for a home here in Luna County that could utilize every drop of that water and would if we would've had it.
SIEG: Tink Jackson is the manager of nearby Luna County.
JACKSON: You're talking about a county with a 16 or 17 percent unemployment rate. And I'm turning away employers that would employ 200 or 300 people because we don't have the water for their industry.
SIEG: But opponents say a diversion wouldn't provide enough water to make a difference. Back at the Gila's edge, Todd Schulke says eventually, he thinks these plans will fall through.
SCHULKE: But there's a lot of emotion wrapped up in this.
SIEG: If his side does win, he says it's time to get government protection for this section of the Gila.
SCHULKE: It deserves it. It's gorgeous. It's the kind of place that people just love to go. And there just aren't very many places like it left in the West or in the world.
SIEG: If New Mexico goes through with the diversion, it will take years, possibly decades for the project to be complete. For NPR News, I'm Stina Sieg in southwestern New Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.