Why The Silvery Minnow Matters

For environmentalists, protecting this fish has become the last chance to save an endangered river -- and possibly, the Endangered Species Act.
The Rio Grande silvery minnow may only be four inches long, but its role in shaping New Mexico's future could be huge.

For environmentalists, protecting this fish has become the last chance to save an endangered river. For elected officials, like US Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM, the fish has allowed the Endangered Species Act to become a "monster." Now, Congress is expected to vote at the end of this month on a rider that Domenici added to a federal energy and water spending bill. That rider will prevent the use of San Juan-Chama water -- which both Albuquerque and Santa Fe are counting on for municipal use -- for any endangered species. Ever.

The rider also takes a controversial report by the US Fish and Wildlife Service -- which says water only needs to flow in the Rio Grande until June 15 each year -- and sets that in stone. Forever.

If it passes, the minnow could be left high and dry, despite its victories in court.

That's one reason to care about the silvery minnow. Here are some other reasons why everyone should care about the fate of this little fish.

1. This Fish Could Change the Future

The minnow first became an Endangered Species celebrity almost 10 years ago, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed it for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Since then, the silvery minnow has spent more time in court than it has in the Rio Grande.

Four years ago, a coalition of environmental groups sued the US Department of the Interior, saying two of its agencies -- the Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service -- had violated the ESA by not keeping enough water in the Rio Grande to allow the minnow to survive.

In June 2002, environmentalists won a big victory when Chief US District Judge James A Parker ruled in their favor. Parker said that the Bureau of Reclamation -- which doles out the Rio's water to farmers -- could leave that water in the river channel. Most significantly, Parker also ruled that the Bureau could use San Juan-Chama water for the minnow.

This is the part of the ruling politicians now hope to change: The use of San Juan-Chama water is intrinsic to the plans of numerous entities,including Santa Fe. In June, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Parker's decision.

Up until Congress got involved, the minnow case was largely a regional issue. But since Domenici and US Rep. Heather Wilson, R-NM, attached riders onto the federal water and energy bill, national environmental groups have sprung to attention, citing worries that New Mexico's congressional delegation is trying to chip away at the Endangered Species Act. Speaking on the July day that Wilson's rider passed, John Horning, executive director of Forest Guardians, said, "We've been working on this for seven years. And in five minutes, the House passed the amendment to exempt San Juan-Chama water and to allow the river to run dry for 100 miles."

By cutting a "little hole" in that law, they set a precedent, says Letty Belin, the attorney who has represented environmental groups on behalf of the minnow, "that you can carve holes in the Endangered Species Act whenever that suits you." (She also points out that by going after the Act in a rider, rather than as a bill of its own or administratively through the Interior Department, Domenici and Wilson have "bypassed public hearing and public debate.")

Although the groups are waiting to see the fate of the Domenici legislation, Belin says that they are still litigating the case. It's her hope that the appeals court will hear the case again, or that the case will go on to the Supreme Court. With a formidable and well-established ally like the Endangered Species Act, environmentalists would likely continue winning favorable decisions in court. If the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of the minnow, a national precedent of species protection would be set.

2. If the Minnow Loses, We All Lose

In the appeals court ruling, the three-judge panel concluded that the Bureau of Reclamation had a responsibility to provide water for the silvery minnow. Beyond that, however, the panel's conclusion calls the agency to a higher purpose:

"Scientific literature likens the silvery minnow to a canary in the coal mine," the judges wrote. "Like all parts of the puzzle, the silvery minnow provides a measure of the vitality of the Rio Grande ecosystem, a community that can thrive only when all of its myriad components -- living and non-living -- are in balance." In other words, this isn't just about a fish; it's about an entire ecosystem.

In fact, it was the silvery minnow's placement on the Endangered Species list nine years ago that has required government agencies to keep water in the river for it. (Even though they've failed miserably on occasion, like this summer when an 80-mile stretch of the river dried; at least there has been a law in place which they were supposed to follow.)

At first, Fish and Wildlife Service biologists had the humble goal of stabilizing the minnow population and allowing it to breed on its own in the river. Their recovery plan also called for re-establishing the fish in three other places in the state.

Now, the agency is in a frantic race just to keep it from going extinct. While there are hundreds of thousands of the fish growing in a 50,000-gallon refugium in Albuquerque's BioPark, biologists have no idea how many are in the river now. For the species to recover, millions of minnows would have to make it in the middle Rio Grande. As it stands now, with the river consistently drying each summer in the minnows' habitat, there's no way they can recover.

"Fish need water and riverine fish need flowing water," says Jim Brooks, the project manager with New Mexico's Fishery Resource Office of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "If the intermittency we see now continues, we're going to lose this fish."

At the same time, the lack of water for the fish reflects the lack of water in general. The state, the cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque and farmers who irrigate their fields with water from the Rio Grande all want their fair share of the river. But if everyone continues to get that fair share, there won't be anything left in the river. "The bottom line," says Brooks, a fisheries biologist who is also an irrigator in Albuquerque's South Valley, "is whether people in the future are willing to have a dry river." Or, as Domenici himself said in a speech before Congress in June: "There simply isn't enough water to go around."

3. The Minnow Proves Size Doesn't Matter

If there's not enough water to go around -- and here's one premise no one questions -- what chance does a four-inch fish have for getting its share? Yet the battle for the survival of the small fish is another reason the minnow is so important. Everybody loves big fish like salmon: They're dynamic. They die dramatic deaths. Northwestern Indian tribes have myths about them. And, well, they taste good. But who has ever paid so much attention to a four-inch-long minnow?

Speaking a few years ago, while working for the Fish and Wildlife Service, fisheries biologist Chris Hoagstrom said, "If society consciously decided, 'We don't give a shit about little fish' -- if we put it on the books and said, 'We, as Americans, decide little fish don't mean a thing to us,' then, whatever, that's what we've decided. But instead, we've listed these fish, we've got the Endangered Species Act and we just don't apply it."

Hoagstrom worked not only on the Rio Grande, but also on the Pecos River, the Rio's much-neglected stepsister, which flows along the eastern part of the state. The Pecos, which has been drying for 40-or so-mile-long stretches every year since 2001, is home to another little fish, the Pecos bluntnose shiner. The shiner, which once swam the length of both the Pecos and the Rio Grande, is now found only in patches of a 200-mile stretch of the Pecos between Fort Sumner and Brantley Reservoir north of Carlsbad.

Although the Rio Grande and its minnow get more attention than the Pecos and its shiner, the two situations are remarkably similar: New Mexico's two biggest rivers don't have enough water left in them to support two small species of fish. Realistically, if four-inch-long fish can't make a living in the river, how does anything bigger have much of a chance?

4. The Minnow Creates Jobs

With so much riding on its fate, the minnow has provided work for biologists, hydrologists and ecologists at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the state's Department of Game and Fish, the Bureau of Reclamation, the University of New Mexico and private engineering and environmental consulting firms.

Since the Rio Grande began drying, the routine of a minnow biologist goes something like this: In the spring, after the minnows have spawned in the Rio Grande, biologists scoop out the minnow eggs, propagate them and keep them in at the BioPark's refugium. (Last year, biologists collected more than a million eggs; this year they collected about 300,000.) From fall through early spring, biologists stock minnows in the river. This year, Fish and Wildlife biologists stocked about 125,000 minnows. Then in late spring, once the river starts drying -- this summer an 80-mile stretch of the river dried south of Albuquerque -- biologists are "on call." Once they receive word that the river has dried, they head out to the riverbed and scoop minnows out of isolated pools. Not all the minnows survive in these pools: Some get eaten by birds, some dry up and blow away, some die while trapped in the shallow hot water. The rescued minnows are trucked upstream, where biologists drop them back in the river at Central Avenue in Albuquerque. Then in the fall, it starts all over again: Biologists head back out with the minnows they've raised at the BioPark and release them into the river. When they aren't dumping or scooping minnows, biologists are busy monitoring the fish, trying to figure out how successful the introductions are and in which stretches of the river the fish flourish.

The minnow has even kept engineers, architects and construction workers busy: The city of Albuquerque, the Interstate Stream Commission and the Bureau of Reclamation have already spent almost $2 million designing and building the refugium, and a second phase to the project is in the works. Domenici himself likes spending money on the minnow. His "Endangered San Juan-Chama water" rider also provides $7 million for minnow-related projects like "river habitat modifications, leasing water, creating refugiums for minnow breeding, water quality research, improving water connectivity around diversions and nonnative plant removal."

In short, money spent because of the minnow has ranged from the millions spent on studying and breeding the fish to a couple of million building its home away from the river; from the hundreds of thousands spent on reports by private contractors that study water use and water conservation measures to hundreds of thousands spent on attorneys and court fees. Even its detractors must admit, that's a pretty hefty return on such a small fish.

5. The Minnow Brings People Together

Despite its value economically speaking, the minnow has an impressive group of foes.

Before June 2002, the minnow war had mostly been the concern of environmentalists and the Department of the Interior. But in June 2002, environmentalists won a big victory: Chief US District Judge James A Parker ruled in their favor, and said that the Bureau could leave water promised to farmers in the river channel. Parker also ruled that the Bureau could use San Juan-Chama water for the minnow.

Now, to the untrained eye, all the water might seem the same in the muddy Rio Grande. Not so. There are actually two types of water there: Native water that flows down from the mountains of Colorado, and San Juan-Chama water, which originates in the San Juan River, but is pumped by the Bureau of Reclamation into the Chama, a tributary of the Rio Grande. Though some of that water goes to farmers, much of it has been earmarked for Albuquerque. But with San Juan-Chama water now up for grabs, nearly everyone in the state began weighing in on the decision: Albuquerque didn't want to lose its dreams of west-side growth and golf courses, the state didn't want to lose control over its own waters and farmers in the Middle Grande Conservancy District didn't want to concede defeat to a fish the size of an anchovy. Santa Fe, too, relies on using its full allocation of San Juan-Chama water as part of its future water plan.

When the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Parker's decision, things got nasty. Now, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, chances are you don't like the minnow.

Even if you like other endangered species (wolves, southwestern willow flycatchers, northern spotted owls), or are secretly rooting for the fellow, in public you have sided against the minnow: Domenici and US Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Gov. Bill Richardson and Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Wilson and Chavez. As this story goes to press, Rep. Tom Udall, D-NM, is the only member of New Mexico's congressional delegation who hasn't jumped on the anti-minnow bandwagon. Instead, Udall has introduced legislation to Congress that would look for local solutions, mainly using federal money to find technical and conservation solutions to the Rio's chronic drying problem. Although he's a Democrat, Richardson is pulling any strings he can in Washington to keep the state afloat in the minnow war.

This summer, when the appeals court ruled in favor of the minnow, Richardson flew to Washington, DC to meet with Norton. A handpicked Bush Republican, Norton has been responsible in the last three years for helping gut the National Environmental Policy Act, put the brakes on new wilderness designations and transform her department into an oil and gas-friendly empire. Apparently, Richardson felt she could help with the state's problem with an endangered species: He asked Norton to support the state's efforts to overturn the appeals court decision, and said after their meeting that he hoped the minnow case would end up before the Supreme Court. Just two weeks ago, Domenici, along with Bingaman and Richardson, again asked Norton take a position on the minnow.

Richardson also spent the summer negotiating with the enviros, many of them Democrats who supported Richardson during his governor's campaign. John Horning, executive director of the Forest Guardians, says environmentalists were willing to back off on their legal fight over the minnow if water users in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District would implement water-saving techniques, and leave some of their water in the river. "We were trying to use this one moment in time," says Horning, "to bring about a change in agricultural practices." But enviros lost their trump card. Before negotiations could continue, New Mexico's congressional delegation stepped in. Once the rider was firmly attached to the energy and water bill, Richardson postponed negotiations "indefinitely."

Even Santa Fe Mayor Larry Delgado and the City Council aren't completely minnow-friendly, although the council approved a deal to sell the Bureau of Reclamation more than 48 million gallons of San Juan-Chama water this year to help protect the minnow. Santa Fe is allocated 5,605 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama a year, and its long-range water plan involves a diversion project to access all of its allocation.

But The City of Santa Fe also has filed a "friend-of-the-court" brief that, though it's more moderate than the position held by Albuquerque and the state, indicates that the City is worried that if the minnow has first dibs on the waters of the Rio Grande, it may see its own dreams of growth go the way of the dodo.

6. The Minnow Makes a Perfect Scapegoat

New Mexico's water crisis has been known for years. For years and years. Yet very little has been done, in terms of comprehensive regional planning, to prepare for it. With this crisis becoming increasingly dire, the minnow provides a perfect out.

In a logic-defying speech before Congress in June, Domenici said the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals' decision "says the Endangered Species Act can be used to artificially create a drought." He went on to say that the ruling "hobbles us in our efforts to address the Western water crisis." In other words, minnows and the law that protects them are responsible for New Mexico's drought.

Along those same lines, Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez has blamed his city's water woes not on unchecked and irresponsible growth, poor planning or a lack of conservation measures, but on the silvery minnow. Chavez has decried both court decisions, wailing that they "take water from the mouths of the city's children." Indeed, his office has slapped up billboards around Albuquerque in which Chavez poses with the thirsty children he's promising to protect from the minnow. All this kvetching comes about the minnow, despite an internal city audit that found Albuquerque lost 11.6 percent -- or 4.4 billion gallons -- of the groundwater it pumped last year, thanks mostly to leaky pipes.

It makes one wonder what national scapegoat status the minnow could achieve with a better publicist. Perhaps it could be blamed for the tanking economy, for American soldiers dying in Iraq. Got a problem you can't resolve? Forget your parents or Osama and Saddam -- blame the minnow.

Laura Paskus lives and writes in Paonia, Colorado.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018