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Species Act Not Right Tool For Water Problems

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was hard to sit through last week’s exhaustive, two-day meeting of the Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Collaborative Program without concluding that the tools we’re trying to use to deal with the Rio Grande silvery minnow are broken.

The evidence boils down to this: A Fish and Wildlife Service chart handed out near the end of the meeting suggests the endangered minnow survived this year of epic drought without a population crash.

But no one is quite sure what that means, because more than a decade and at least $145 million into the program, the participants can’t agree on the most useful way to count fish.

Why is this such a big deal? Hint: It’s not really about a fish. Or, more precisely, it’s about much more than a fish.

If you believe those who argue we are overusing water in the Middle Rio Grande Valley and headed for a crash (and there’s good data to support that position), it’s likely the problem will first show up in the river itself, as we take out too much surface and groundwater and leave the Rio Grande dry.

The first specific legal and regulatory manifestation of that problem would be a lack of water to meet Endangered Species Act requirements for the Rio Grande silvery minnow.

Farmers and cities will get their water while the Rio Grande goes dry, until someone – federal regulators or an environmentalist with a lawsuit – steps in.

The cliche is to call the minnow a “canary in a coal mine,” a sign of a crashing ecosystem. But it’s also a canary for our water supply problems. As a result, as often happens around the West, society ends up using the Endangered Species Act as a sort of de facto water policy management tool. When water runs short, who has to give some up to keep our rivers wet? We use the ESA to decide that question.

Pushed by a Republican president (Richard Nixon) and passed by a Democratic Congress in 1973, the Endangered Species Act was part of a bipartisan wave of federal legislation passed during the 1960s and ’70s in response to a growing environmental consciousness.

“The purposes of this Act,” the law reads, “are to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, (and) to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species.”

To that end, the Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Collaborative Program was formed to bring the major water players together.

From a regulatory perspective, the group provides a forum for participation in the Endangered Species Act regulatory process. But despite the word “collaborative” in its name, wags joke that its real purpose is to provide an easy way for the middle valley’s water warriors to keep an eye on what their adversaries are up to.

“There’s a lot of distrust,” Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, the Interstate Stream Commission’s Rio Grande manager, said during last week’s meeting.

The most visible current manifestation is a conflict between the Interstate Stream Commission and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The commission is responsible for meeting New Mexico’s obligations to deliver water to Texas while New Mexico users still get their fair share of what remains. The Fish and Wildlife Service, as its name implies, has been given the job by Congress of ensuring we don’t drive the minnow extinct in the process.

The service issued a “Minnow Recovery Plan” last year that set out criteria for how to measure success in pulling the minnow back from the brink, based on data collected in fish surveys each October at 20 sites up and down the river. But a study done for the Collaborative Program and made public last week concluded there is significant scientific uncertainty about the connection between the survey results and the true size of the minnow population in the Rio Grande.

“We’ve got a whole bunch of data we’re not sure we have confidence in,” said Estevan L√≥pez, the head of the Interstate Stream Commission.

Lori Robertson of the Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency does have confidence in the data – not necessarily enough to make absolute estimates of the population of the endangered fish in the river, but at least enough to detect trends.

Given the uncertainty, a larger uncertainty remains regarding the best way to help the species going forward. Will we continue putting extra water in the Rio Grande during dry years to keep it wet for the minnow? Are there other approaches, as some water users argue, that could create better minnow habitat without spending as much precious water to do it? Or do we, as some environmentalists argue, need even more water to restore the riparian ecosystem that surrounds the imperiled fish?

To try to get to that question, the members of the Collaborative Program last week spent two days hashing out how to create a “Recovery Implementation Program.”

The idea is to lay out a path toward the minnow’s “recovery.” But after 10 years of effort, it was clear at last week’s meeting there still is no agreement about how to measure progress, or how to even define the term. Instead, they piled a new process (a “RIP”) on top of existing processes that have in the past failed to sort out these hard questions.

“If we’re going to move toward recovery,” said a frustrated Janet Jarratt, a vocal advocate for the valley’s farmers, “we’ve got to know what that means.”

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or jfleck@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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