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Rare fish not faring well in the Rio Grande

At the end of October, the Rio Grande in Los Lunas is crunchy.

Except for a few crows and one sandhill crane flying high above, the skies are quiet. There’s no water here, and no reason for cranes or ducks to land. Up and down the riverbed, there’s only sand.

This time of year, Mike Hatch is still getting out of bed at about two in the morning. Since mid-June, he’s been tracking the drying as part of the government’s River Eyes program.

“Long ago, when I first started dealing in this stuff, in this business,” he says, “it was startling to look upon a river that had no water in it.”

The worst day this year was August 14, when 53 miles of the river ran dry. It’s happened before. And 2012 wasn’t the worst year. In 2003, 60 miles dried, and in 2004, almost 70 miles.

It’s also no surprise the river dried this summer and fall:  The past 24 months have been the driest on record--that is, since at least 1900.  

“It gets discouraging, but at the same time, in the arid southwest, because we are inherently arid, this condition isn’t entirely unnatural,” says Hatch. “You get out onto the eastern plains, those streams would eventually run out of water, and you would wonder 'how did the fish survive?' I actually find it an interesting study in species adaptation.”

Hatch is checking the riverbed each morning because of a four-inch long fish, the silvery minnow. The fish used to swim almost the entire length of the Rio Grande. Now, it has about 150 miles of habitat in the Middle Rio Grande.

But long stretches of the fish’s habitat keep running dry during irrigation season, when river water is diverted into canals.

There’s one important stretch that can’t dry, however.  In 1994, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the silvery minnow for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Then, ten years ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service required water managers to keep water flowing through Albuquerque for the minnow.

Jim Wilber is a biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency which, for over a century, has delivered water to users throughout the western United States and New Mexico. But gone are the days when the Bureau just worried about human water users. Now, it also has to consider environmental impacts and endangered species, like the silvery minnow.

“The endangered species became part of the puzzle,” Wilber says. “And they kind of got a seat at the table, and so as we operated for our more core mission, users such as the cities or the irrigation districts, then we also had to work the needs of the river in the mix in order to meet our endangered species requirements.”

This year has been tough because of the drought. And even though Wilber is hopeful for the future of the river, its users and wildlife, he says everyone has to be creative.

“I think the solutions as we move forward are going to have to be somewhat different than what we’ve used in the past,” he says. “So we’re going to have to be very creative as we move forward—because we’re moving forward into a new hydrologic future, and likely a drier future.”

That’s a serious thought considering how poorly the fish is doing this year. That’s despite biologists rescuing minnows in the summer—and more than $150 million spent by the Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Act Collaborative Program over the past decade

At a recent program meeting, a federal biologist explained how the situation worsened throughout the summer and fall.

As Jason Davis, supervisory fish biologist with the New Mexico Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, told members of the program’s executive committee: “The latest results in September 2012, indicate the lowest numbers of silvery minnow since 1993.”

In mid-June, when the river first dried, biologists surveyed 25 miles of riverbed—running nets through puddles and rescuing almost 2,000 minnows.

By mid-September, Davis said their efforts turned up no minnows: “Like I said, I wish I could be presenting a much prettier picture, but looks like pretty historic low numbers for silvery minnow this year.”

From the audience, another biologist weighed in. For two decades, his crews have monitored the fish’s numbers at 20 different sites in the river. While monitoring in October, they found not one minnow in the Middle Rio Grande.  In almost 20 years, he said, that’s a first. 

Join KUNM 89.9 tomorrow for the second part of the story on the Rio Grande. In part two, you’ll hear about some of the minnow’s competitors for water, including farmers.

UPDATE: You can read part two here:http://kunm.org/post/rio-grande-could-join-ghost-rivers-southwest

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