As the group of 25 Latino youth from Las Cruces stood before the recently washed out trail they traveled three hours to hike, the group took a vote on whether to proceed or turn back. Unanimously, the Santa Rosa de Lima Church youth group chose to continue their journey to the Gila River — New Mexico’s last free flowing river — and learn more about the threats it faces from the proposal to divert its water.
The 25 Latino youth, aged 14 to 19, spent the first weekend of October camping in the Gila National Forest and taking part in a six-hour hike along the West Fork of the Gila River. Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF), a national nonprofit working to expose more Latinos to the nation’s public lands and emphasize through experience the importance of preserving it for future generations, sponsored the trip.
“These kids are vocal champions for the outdoors,” said Maite Arce, president HAF. “This weekend was about showing them the beauty of the Gila River and its surroundings. With their personal experience, they are eager to make a difference for the Gila – they are inspired to fight for its protection so that other young people will be able to enjoy it in the future.”
In fact, the youth group testify Monday before the State Senate Water and Natural Resources Committee regarding the proposed Gila River Diversion Project, which would cost taxpayers approximately $200 million, and end the Gila’s status as the last free flowing river in New Mexico.
“Having the opportunity to learn about the Gila River and what it offers to its ecosystem is incredible,” said Paola Rivera, 17, a member of A.T.O.M.I.C. Youth Group from Santa Rosa de Lima Church. “If they were to make a diversion in the river it can affect the things around it greatly. There are animals, plants, trees, and insects that need the river…making a diversion could help at moments, but in the long run it wouldn’t have been worth it.”
The thoughts and opinions of this youth group on the Gila River echo that of the state as a whole. A recent poll from Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies found that 81 percent of New Mexicans are concerned about water levels in the state’s rivers and 72 percent were concerned about river health in general.
“My experience coming to the Gila River was life-changing,” said Amanda Aguirre, 15, another member of A.T.O.M.I.C. “I think it is important that we do everything we can do keep this river flowing. Why are you going to destroy something so beautiful?”