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River refuge: Public-private partnership works to restore silvery minnow habitat

The Rhodes property abuts the Rio Grande near San Antonio. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Last year, the tiny Rio Grande silvery minnow was in trouble. Parts of the river went dry, so early in the year state agencies rescued groups of the endangered fish and moved them to flowing parts of the Rio Grande.

This year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation decided to take advantage of high water levels from a strong spring runoff and create more habitat for the fish on the Middle Rio Grande.

Doris Rhodes owns 629 acres near San Antonio in Socorro County, and for years she has been advocating for her property to host a Reclamation silvery minnow project. Earlier this year, her work paid off.

Rhodes’ land is nestled on the Rio Grande near Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, making it an ideal location for restoration and conservation, according to Reclamation project manager Ashlee Rudolph.

The Rio Grande silvery minnow. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

Reclamation crews worked from January to March of this year to lower and widen the riverbank on the southern end of the property. They excavated 46,000 cubic yards of dirt to create water channels where minnows could escape the fast-moving river.

“What makes this project great is that it is a partnership between a private landowner who wanted to create habitat on her land and the federal and state agencies,” Rudolph said. “It is so rare to have that partnership.”

Slowing the river flow

Reclamation worked with the private non-profit Save Our Bosque Task Force, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s New Mexico Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to excavate zigzag patterns on nearly a mile of the river.

The Rhodes property is one of few remaining historic wetlands in the San Acacia Reach of the Rio Grande, a primary habitat for silvery minnow.

The property has no levees on the east side of the river, which has helped in the restoration of the area’s natural floodplain, according to Reclamation Albuquerque Area public affairs specialist Mary Carlson.

From left, Chris Torres, acting field division manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Mary Carlson, Bureau of Reclamation Albuquerque area public affairs specialist, and property owner Doris Rhodes discuss silvery minnow habitat restoration efforts at Rhodes’ land in Socorro County on Thursday. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

“The river used to braid and meander throughout the land,” Carlson said. “Now it’s confined, so the river is deeper and flows faster. Some species are not too happy about that. The little areas where water is slow, that’s what minnows are looking for. The main goal is that they reconnect to the river.”

Chris Torres, who oversees river maintenance operations on the Middle Rio Grande for the Reclamation Albuquerque Area Office, said the slow-moving side channels are critical for minnow-spawning.

“Minnows like that edge habitat. It’s worked perfectly,” Torres said. “The water is backing the way it’s supposed to, and we can see fish moving down through there. As the water drops, everything returns back to the main river like it’s supposed to.”

Rudolph said that since 2016, there have been at least eight silvery minnow habitats constructed in the San Acacia Reach of the river. Reclamation is joined by the Interstate Stream Commission to create these sites and monitor the fish populations.

The new channels don’t just provide habitat for the small fish, which was listed on the federal endangered species list in 1994. Birds, deer and other wildlife are also drawn to the lowered riverbank.

“It’s rewarding to carve out a place on the Rio Grande where water is flowing more naturally and all species have places where they can thrive,” Rhodes said.

Reclamation crews took care to preserve native plants on the river during construction.

Torres said the crews left native cottonwoods intact and planted New Mexico olive trees. Crews also completed the project quickly so as not to disturb the federally-endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher.

Side channels were excavated by the Bureau of Reclamation along the Rio Grande where it passes through the Rhodes’ property to provide habitat for the endangered silvery minnow. (Dustin Armstrong/U.S. Bureau Of Reclamation)

“Normally we would go through and just clear-cut everything for excavation purposes, but for this project we elected to leave the islands and leave as much of the native vegetation as we could,” Torres said.

Carlson said the silvery minnow is the “canary in the coal mine that gives a signal when things are wrong in the river.” By creating more habitat for the fish, Reclamation can help make the entire Rio Grande healthier.

“When the goal is habitat restoration, we think silvery minnow and flycatcher, but what we’re really looking at is overall ecosystem improvement,” Carlson said. “We’re trying to turn back time and take the river back to a more natural state.”

Unlikely conservationist

This isn’t the first time the Rhodes property has served as a refuge for endangered and threatened species. Rhodes has worked with local, state and federal agencies for years to ensure the conservation land is a habitat for the yellow-billed cuckoo, Southwestern willow flycatcher and the Pecos sunflower.

Rhodes said her father, the late state Sen. Virgil Rhodes, bought the property in 1980. He removed some of the invasive salt cedar and Russian olive on the land.

“My dad loved it out here,” Rhodes said. “But he wasn’t what you would call an environmentalist or conservationist.”

When her father died in 2005, Rhodes was unsure of what to do with the land she and her sisters inherited. Game and Fish was ready to purchase the property, so Rhodes traveled down to Socorro County to check on the land.

“It had rained, and there was now a lake on the north end of property,” Rhodes said. “The geese were coming in, and I thought, ‘you don’t see lakes in New Mexico that just pop up out of nowhere. I can’t sell this property.’ ”

Rhodes said a developer offered her $1 million in cash for the property. He wanted to build houses on the land. She turned him down.

“This is conservation land,” Rhodes said. “I feel like I have been granted stewardship of the land to make sure that it goes where it needs to go and becomes what it truly needs to be.”

Besides the deeded land, the property also has 200 acres of state-leased land and 4,400 acres of land leased from the Bureau of Land Management. Rhodes worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to secure a permanent conservation easement that prevents future development on the land.

The property has flooded at least four times since 2006 – which Rhodes says is a good thing.

“The Rhodes Property is a release valve,” she said. “When the river’s running high, water will come on to the property. It protects farmers to the north and south and also protects Bosque del Apache.”

She said that, after the minnow project is complete, her next step will likely be more removal of the invasive salt cedar and planting of native plant species.

“The more conservation that happens down here,” Rhodes said, “the more I’m convinced that this property is on the right path.”

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