Ella’s Fight to Save the Gila River

[Written by Susan Dunlap, and originally published by the Silver City Sun-News.]

Aldo Leopold student in Silver City is fighting to save the Gila River
14-year-old Ella Kirk is an articulate advocate

As Grant County residents gear up for the fight over the Gila River in 2014, river activists have found a very powerful voice in 14-year-old Ella Kirk.

The Aldo Leopold Charter School student may be young, but already she has a lot to say about the Gila River diversion project. Passionate about water, Kirk delivered her first petition to Jim Dunlap, Chairman of the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) in October and she has another online petition she intends to send to Governor Susana Martinez during the up-coming legislative session.

“She spoke the truth very eloquently,” Kirk’s mother and WNMU Biology lab director Patrice Mutchnick said about Kirk’s presentation at the ISC meeting in October. “It really hit people. Her ability to reach out to us as adults and say this is a bad decision, and to hear it from someone so young, so rationale. It seemed like she was speaking for her generation.”

Kirk said she has always been interested in activism.

“It’s always been a part of my life,” Kirk said.

Kirk got her first taste of making a difference when she was only seven years old. That is when she got involved in the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance and she acted in a performance piece, playing the part of the river.

“Ella grew up on the river,” Mutchnick said. “She’s always loved water and always felt a strong connection to it.”

ej-river-monitoringThe Gila River diversion project got Kirk’s attention about a year ago when classes from Aldo Leopold Charter School attended a Grant County commission meeting in which commissioners were to discuss a proposal to divert Gila River water to Deming. Senator John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, proposed the project to construct a pipe to carry water from the Gila River to Deming and potentially beyond. Kirk spoke at that meeting, along with three other Aldo Leopold students.

Kirk started her first petition after that meeting in March 2013. She received 1,331 signatures online. Hard copy versions also circulated and Kirk gained another 900 names. With more than 2,200 signatures in total, Kirk presented her petition at the meeting the ISC held in October.

“Through her own exploring on the internet about how other activists do things, Ella thought of creating this petition,” Mutchnick said. “You don’t have to be with any particular group to start one of these petitions, it’s something you can do for any idea you have.”

Even though Mutchnick insists that her daughter’s work to save the Gila River from being dammed is Kirk’s own work, both mother and daughter agree that Kirk’s first example of activism came from her mom.

“Being a science person, she’s always been involved,” Kirk said.

Prior to her employment at WNMU, Mutchnick worked as a plant collector for the Smithsonian Institute. She is currently the faculty advisor for the eco-sustainability club at WNMU and she recently organized a neighborhood group called Gila Hotsprings stewards.

“I try to be encouraging and say that if you love something, you may not want to have to fight for it, but you do,” Mutchnick said. “You can make a difference.”

That lesson has been a strong one for Kirk who at such a young age is already having an impact on the fight to save the Gila River. After Kirk presented her petition in October, she wrote each of the ISC commissioners personally and included a copy of the petition. One of the ISC commissioners, Phelps Anderson, wrote Kirk back and thanked her.

“What I appreciate about her work, it’s not just about work, it’s also about play,” Mutchnick said. “She’s having fun out there.”

Like any normal 14 year-old Kirk does have fun. She has a variety of hobbies, including the violin and dance. She also likes to swim, hike and simply ride her bike. And she loves to write.

In addition to her online petitions, Kirk pens a column about water for Stream Dynamics which she posts on the Gila Community Board. Like her work with the river, Kirk has already learned at such a young age how to combine what she loves to do in ways that are also productive and rewarding for herself as well as others.

In addition to her studies, the serious student works as part of a team of ecological monitors and has already become an acquatic specialist through Aldo Leopold. On her own, Kirk plans to meet with state representatives during the NM state legislative session in February.

“It’s important for people to be involved in what’s going on around them,” Kirk said. “If they’re not, who’s going to be?”

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