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Saving fish from a drying river

The monsoon rains arrived this month, but it’s still hot and dry in New Mexico.

The ongoing drought is placing stress on the state’s rivers and streams, including the Rio Grande. And while cities and farmers still receive their shares of water, each summer, one user gets left out—the Rio Grande itself. Like it has every summer for the past decade, the Rio Grande downstream of Albuquerque is drying.

Early each morning Jason Remshardt, supervisory fish biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) New Mexico Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, receives a call letting him know how many miles of the river dried overnight. “They give me a call,” he says, “and say, ‘‘Hey this is where you have to go today,’ and we load up and come to the river.”

Before the monsoons arrived, some 30 miles of riverbed had dried. On Tuesday, only about a mile of river had dried.

The biologists head out to the river, looking for pools of water—some the size of a computer keyboard, others the size of a couch—then check for fish trapped within them.

Specifically, they’re looking for the silvery minnow, a rare fish protected under the Endangered Species Act. Water management agencies are normally required to keep water in the river for that endangered fish—except during irrigation season.

Each year, starting on June 15, water doesn’t have to flow through a stretch of the river south of Albuquerque. And each year about that time, biologists get ready to spend their summer salvaging minnows.

This mid-July morning, they’re at the Rio Grande in Los Lunas—just south of where Highway 6 crosses the river.  Comprised of biologists from FWS and the Army Corps of Engineers, the crew packs buckets, lunches, nets, a water quality meter, and fiberglass fish tanks for the minnows. Using ATVs they drive two miles south along the levy road.     

Arriving at the riverbed, the biologists drive up the dry channel, looking for pools of water.  Yesterday, this stretch of the river was wet. Today, as the morning warms, the pools are shrinking and disappearing.  Within each of them there are fish struggling to survive.

The biologists quickly use dip nets or seines to scoop up the fish and find minnows.

Tristan Austring, a biologist with FWS, has been doing this salvage work for six summers.  “The first few summers, it's pretty demoralizing, and I feel like it would be nice if people in Albuquerque actually knew that this happened,” he says. “Most people don’t know this happens, because there’s always water in Albuquerque, so I think it’s out of the people’s minds.”

They’re searching for silvery minnows to rescue—but thousands of other fish are left to die.

“It’s rough at first, especially when you find a bunch of these big native fish, that you know must be 20 years old; some of those buffalo [fish] are 15, 20 years old,” says Austring, “but because they decided to come up from Elephant Butte this year, they’re all dead, and we just don’t have the capacity to save them.”

After surveying upstream for a mile, the biologists finally reach the river. There’s a trickle of moving water, a few inches across. Now, it’s time now to bring the rescued minnows to a stretch of the river this is flowing. The biologists drive to a spot south of Belen.

“We salvaged about 50 fish, so now we’re going to take them downstream, about 10 or 15 miles to a spot that stays wet all summer long,” says Remshardt. “So we’re moving them out of this section and taking them down. And hopefully most of them will be in pretty good shape, and they’ll survive the rest of the summer.”

At the river south of Belen, they pour some of the river’s water into the tank holding the 49 silvery minnows that they rescued today, then give the fish some time to acclimate before releasing them into the Rio Grande. Then, the FWS's Judith Barkstedt hooks up a plastic pipe to the bottom of the tank, and the water pours out into the river.

The rescued silvery minnows are back in the river, and Remshardt and his crew are ready to head back into the office. “It was a good day, as far as that goes,” he says. “I mean, any time you have to do salvage, it’s not necessarily a good day. But based on the circumstances, we did a good job.”

To see video from the salvage efforts, visit KUNM’s Earth Air Waves blog.