Everyone has a river story.
A favorite story of mine is when my dad took our family on a rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon when I was a teenager, in 1967. At that time, there was a proposal to dam the river in the canyon, flooding it for 27 miles. My father, Stewart, was secretary of the Interior under President Johnson. He said the secretary “should never make armchair judgments on national conservation issues.” He wanted to see the run of the river and canyons for himself. He wanted to “let the canyons speak for themselves.”
The beauty of the canyons and river did speak for themselves. And they convinced my father that the Colorado shouldn’t be dammed. At the end of the trip, he held a press conference and said we’re not going to build dams in the Grand Canyon. It’s a magnificent place, and we should leave it alone. And that was that.
In New Mexico, we know “agua es vida” — water is life. New Mexicans depend on our rivers to irrigate our farms, bring water to our cities and villages, support fish and wildlife and recharge our aquifers, and as places to spend time as families to fish, float, and play. Rivers protect water quality and sacred and cultural sites and support local businesses serving recreationists and tourism — like fly fishing shops, guiding services, commercial rafting, restaurants, and hotels.
October 2 marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. We have much to celebrate this year.
The Act took four years to make its way through Congress to President Johnson’s desk, but Democrats and Republicans worked together to make it happen. Back then, they understood that our common heritage and our national treasures shouldn’t have a party label.
I couldn’t be prouder that my father helped shepherd this landmark legislation through Congress. He understood the value of rivers and the urgency to protect the most special from dams, diversions, and development. For him, it was about balance, common sense, and leaving a legacy for our children, grandchildren, and beyond.
New Mexicans can be proud that one of the first eight rivers designated under the Act was part of the Rio Grande. That segment flows through the iconic Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. Later, sections of the Chama, the Pecos, and the East Fork of the Jemez were designated and now enjoy the protected status as Wild and Scenic Rivers.
I’ve been proud to carry on my father’s legacy of working in Washington for New Mexico to protect important lands and waters. When it comes to beautiful rivers, New Mexico is lucky. But with that luck, comes responsibility.
After 50 years, we’ve made some progress, but still only about 1/10 of 1 percent of the approximately 108,014 river miles in New Mexico are protected – only 124 miles.
That is not enough.
I know that many New Mexicans are working to protect the Gila River, to keep it wild and free flowing. The river runs through the Gila Wilderness – the first designated wilderness in our country, in 1924. Its role in New Mexico’s history, economy, and geography can’t be overstated. I appreciate the efforts to build a strong and diverse coalition of people who care about the river and want to keep it the way it is. It’s vital that people come together to protect it and to assure that it can nourish future generations. I’m excited to see what we can do working together to protect the Gila and our other precious rivers.
We are all the beneficiaries of the vision and determination of people like my father, and we honor them during this anniversary year. But they also challenge us to look forward with renewed commitment, with renewed determination. We owe that to future generations. I hope we leave them a New Mexico where our most special rivers and lands are protected.
Tom Udall is the senior senator from New Mexico.