Silvery minnow faces cruel, cruel summer on parched Rio Grande

Posted: May 21, 2013

Written by

April Reese, Greenwire
Silvery minnow

With flows on the Middle Rio Grande in central New Mexico expected to slow to a trickle this summer, the endangered silvery minnow is facing one of its worst years ever.

Farms and cities in the Middle Rio Grande Valley that rely on the river are also bracing for low flows. Under a 2003 plan from the Fish and Wildlife Service, water managers with the Bureau of Reclamation are supposed to provide enough water to sustain the diminutive fish, but without much water in the river, that will be difficult this year, officials said.

"This is the worst year since 2002," said Mike Hamman, area manager of Reclamation's Albuquerque office. Unless it rains, most of the reservoirs on the Rio Grande are likely to reach all-time lows, he added.

"That's kind of the paradox, is that Reclamation can only do what it can do based on the amount of water they have control over," said Janet Bair, ecological services program supervisor for FWS's Albuquerque office. "So if they cannot deliver on the commitments laid out under the 2003 biological opinion, the question is, what do we do?"

The 2003 plan is about to expire, and discussions are underway to come up with new long-term strategies to help keep the species afloat while also meeting the needs of cities and farms. In the meantime, federal officials, irrigators and other entities are trying to figure out how to get the silvery minnow through a very dry 2013.

"As we speak, we're finalizing alternatives, in order to help us keep as many fish from being as extirpated as possible," Hamman said. Officials will discuss the short-term plan at a meeting in Albuquerque tomorrow, he added.

Parts of the river are likely to dry up, and biologists expect to have to transport minnows to wetter areas of the river, as they did in the early 2000s, said Jim Brooks, a fisheries biologist with FWS's conservation office in Albuquerque.

"It's a difficult situation," he said. "Some of the conversations we're having right now we should have been having last October, because we had the data, the warning that things were bad."

Officials had initially talked about unleashing a spring pulse to push enough water into the system for the fish -- which only live about a year -- to spawn, but those plans had to be abandoned because of the lack of water, Hamman said.

"It would have shot everything that we had just to do that, then we would have had no flexibility for the rest of the year," he said.

That means the minnow is unlikely to spawn this year.

"Now we're just looking at survival" of the existing fish, Bair said.

Every year, biologists release thousands of silvery minnows into the Middle Rio Grande from a captive breeding population. Some of those hatchery fish now go to a newly established population in Big Bend National Park as well.

FWS, Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and several other entities with a stake in the Rio Grande are working on the long-term recovery implementation plan, which will detail various strategies that water managers might be able to employ to help the fish while continuing to meet their obligations to provide water to farms and cities, including Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

"We want to establish a flexible program that allows us to design an annual strategy that maximizes our ability to provide for the fish and its recovery in any one year," Bair explained. "It basically will provide a suite of activities that should be occurring from one year to the next to maximize our chances of conserving and recovering the species."

She added that "all the parties recognize the dire situation we're in. The entities that participate in the collaborative program know they need to manage the resource in a conservative fashion to make sure all parties receive water. It's very difficult."

In the early 2000s, the fracas over protections for the minnow ended up playing out in a heated legal battle. But Hamman has faith that the collaborative group, which has worked together for a decade, will be able to come up with a plan that allows both humans and fish to weather the drought on the Middle Rio Grande.

"Barring the potential for continuous extreme drought, I'm very hopeful that we are on the right path," Hamman said. "And I'm optimistic that within the constraints of the system, we can revise it in a way that better balances resources to meet the competing goals."

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