As water managers in the Southwest parcel out the scarce commodity to cities and farmers in a prolonged drought, environmentalists are threatening to sue them for not leaving enough for a tiny fish called the Rio Grande silvery minnow.
WildEarth Guardians maintains that the minnow’s numbers are dramatically shrinking because water users in Colorado and New Mexico are siphoning off too much water before it reaches the fish’s main remaining habitat on the Rio Grande.
Farmers upstream say they don’t have a drop to spare, pointing to their idled fields. They fear their crops will suffer even more if water curbs are put in place to protect the fish.
The minnow dispute is one of many challenges federal and state officials face as they try to balance the legal rights of critters protected under the Endangered Species Act with the realities of the drought.
In February, WildEarth Guardians notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation it planned to sue them for failing to prevent damage to the silvery minnow’s habitat. The group also notified the Colorado Department of Natural Resources the previous month, saying its water distribution was harming the minnows.
The Colorado natural-resources department and the two federal agencies declined to comment. Mike Hamman, a Bureau of Reclamation manager in Albuquerque, said his office has taken steps to protect the fish, including leasing water to increase downstream flows, but can only do so much due to the dry conditions. “We did everything we possibly could for the benefit of the species under the resource constraints,” he said.
Still, in the last three years there hasn’t been sufficient water to trigger mass spawning. In October, service biologists found only three silvery minnows in a 120-mile stretch, down from thousands in previous years.
Three minnows in 120 miles? Maybe it’s time to declare the war over and resume feeding humans.