Faces of Rivers: Gabe Vasquez, Las Cruces City Councilor

Faces of Rivers is an ongoing profile series from American Rivers

Gabe Vasquez on the banks of the Gila River near Cliff, NM | Photo courtesy of Gabe Vasquez

What’s your Gila River story?

The Gila is home. It’s where I escape into a vast and diverse forested wonderland where the high desert meets the ponderosa pines. I’ve been lucky to backpack, hike, hunt, fish and camp under the stars of the Gila. On the San Francisco, one of the Gila’s tributaries, I’ve sat at the hot springs with my family and swam and shared swimming holes with catfish, all while a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep peered down at us from a nearby bluff. In the Gila-Cliff Valley, I’ve walked the banks of the Gila hunting for Turkey, only to have a covey of mearn’s quail fly out from the brush as I nearly stepped on them because of how tight these magnificent birds hold. On the East Fork of the Gila, I caught my first Gila Trout — a moment I’ll never forget, after wading for hours and miles across the river to find the perfect cool-water pool. On the banks of Willow Creek, I spent one of the most spectacular nights under the stars, listening to the Spotted Owls hoot as the shooting stars light up the night. Water is life in the Gila, and everything connected to this special place depends on the wild and free-flowing Gila and its tributaries to survive.

Your region has this juxtaposition of wild, pristine lands and waters paired with a working, farming landscape. In a changing climate, why is it important to protect both of these things?

Agriculture has always been one of New Mexico’s primary industries. We are inextricably tied to the land and we will always be. But it’s our duty to protect our land, along with its productivity, for generations to come. That means we have to carefully and sustainably manage our natural resources. That means that we must embrace change. We must account for lower water flows, less predictable precipitation, higher summer temperatures and more frequent wildfires. We can live with the land, but we absolutely have to learn to adapt to our climate if we want to continue depending on the natural resources that power our communities and our economy.

Specific to water, why do we need to protect these last, best freshwater strongholds like the Gila?

A free-flowing Gila River is the key to the biodiversity that makes the Gila region so special. Our flora and fauna depend on the riparian corridors that cut through the forest for survival and sustainability. Without a protected, free-flowing river, we degrade the very ecosystem that we depend on for enjoyment and economic opportunity. History has shown that damming and diverting rivers for short-term economic gain negatively impacts sustainable water management and in turn, hurts the wildlife and communities that depend on those streams and rivers. The Gila is one of the last wild rivers left in the Southwest, and it’s imperative that we do everything we can to protect it.

As a city councilor, how do you view your role in safeguarding wild rivers and lands like the Gila for our communities today and for future generations?

I see my role as a city councilor to bring prosperity to my community and to manage our financial and natural resources wisely to sustain healthy families, neighborhoods, and improve our quality of life. The Gila and other rivers, streams, bodies of water, and public lands that surround our community form part of our identity and add to the quality of life of our community. We can continue to thrive and prosper in the Chihuahuan Desert, but only if we have the resources we need to continue living here for generations to come. That means we must protect our water sources and wild places and have the foresight to pass our way of life on to the next generation.

What’s one of your favorite things about the natural landscape where you live? Anything else to add?

Although we live in one of the hottest and driest regions of the desert Southwest, we are blessed with tremendous opportunities to go outside for recreation and healing. Within a 3-hour radius, we are blessed with an abundance of natural, public lands such as White Sands National Park, Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument, the Rio Bravo, Carlsbad Caverns, the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, and of course, the Gila River and the Gila River National Forest and its accompanying wilderness. Southern New Mexico is an amazing and beautiful place to live full of culture, history, diversity and a landscape and ecosystem that we share with our southern neighbors in Mexico. It is everything America ought to be.

As a snowpack and monsoon driven river, every drop counts, especially with climate change | Photo courtesy of Gabe Vasquez

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