The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Friday approved a plan by Rio Grande water managers to cut back river flows beginning this weekend in an effort to stretch dwindling water supplies for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow.
The plan falls short of water flow mandates in 2003 Rio Grande operating rules aimed at reviving dwindling minnow populations but represents “the best possible outcome” for the fish this year, according to a Friday afternoon memo from the Fish and Wildlife Service to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Under the 2003 rules, the Bureau of Reclamation is required to keep the Rio Grande flowing continuously between Cochiti Dam and Elephant Butte Reservoir. In order to allow farmers and cities to continue using their share, the agency meets the minnow requirements by releasing water imported from the San Juan River basin and stored in dams along the Rio Chama.
But with supplies short this year, Bureau hydrologists say keeping the river wet through June 15 would use so much water now that they risk running out and drying the river completely later this summer.
“We believe that the actions that are being taken are the best possible outcome,” said Janet Bair, Regional Water Policy Coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque.
The proposal also means lowering flows to a trickle in the Rio Grande through Albuquerque later this summer, while trying to keep several areas of habitat on the river downstream wet as refuges for surviving minnow populations.
The proposal to lower flows has drawn criticism from advocates of maintaining water in the Rio Grande to meet environmental concerns. The current plan risks extinction of wild minnows, leaving only fish in hatcheries, argued Jen Pelz of Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians. Pelz’s group last month filed a notice that it intends to sue federal water managers for failing to take steps over the last decade to protect the minnow.