WildEarth Guardians’ Aug. 11 commentary on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Rio Grande silvery minnow salvage update once again distorts Rio Grande hydrology and minnow science.
WildEarth Guardians avoids mention of the extensive and expanding efforts of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and its water management partners to minimize harm to the minnow, as well as the significant resources we have committed to its recovery.
Ironically, WildEarth Guardians clamors for using “science and not politics (to) determine how the river is managed” and urges prioritization of “… measures necessary to ensure survival and recovery of the species,” but it has done neither. It has steadfastly refused to participate in the Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Collaborative Program, where minnow science informs stakeholder policy, and where the minnow’s Recovery Implementation Program championed by the MRGCD, the State of New Mexico, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and others has been developed in a public and inclusive process. WildEarth Guardians substitutes inflammatory news releases for truth, and lawsuits for collaboration.
Let’s focus on facts.
It’s true that portions of the Rio Grande stopped flowing the last three weeks in July, as has happened in most summers since we have been gauging the Rio Grande and likely before that.
And yes, minnows and other creatures have lost habitat due to channelization and flood protection for all the villages and towns in the middle valley, and yes, they do perish in the sun, as has often happened as a part of the life cycles in a high desert river.
And yes, the MRGCD was and will be delivering water for crop irrigation, as we and our predecessors have done for centuries.
From there, the WildEarth Guardians news release veers recklessly off course.
Is the silvery minnow really in a “downward spiral?” The species was declared endangered in 1994, but there is limited life history data on population prior to 1993. Data from the last 23 years shows wild fluctuations in population from year to year, as could be expected for a species like the minnow that produces millions of eggs each spring of which only a tiny, variable fraction survive to the fall even under wet conditions.
River conditions have changed since the late 1800s, but to meet WildEarth Guardians’ demands would we remove Cochiti Dam and the levee system that protects us from devastating floods, and cease agricultural diversions? Obviously no, but what we are doing is altering in-river conditions to significantly improve conditions for endangered and all species that rely on the river.
Agricultural use of water in the valley today is a fraction of what it was 200 years ago, and MRGCD’s water diversions are half or less of what they were 20 years ago. WildEarth Guardians paints a deceptive portrait of simply keeping “the river flowing and connected.” Reality is much more complex.
The river’s bosque consumes more water than the basin produces. Annual upstream storage and release of thousands of acre-feet actually keep portions of the Rio Grande wetter in summer and fall than under base flow conditions so the delivery of water to farms substantially reduces the miles of river that may ordinarily run dry.
In 2015, about 30 miles of the Rio Grande ceased to flow. But strategically located habitat areas maintained by the MRGCD and its partners using irrigation canals and river return outfalls provided wet/cool refuges for survival until the late summer rains came.
Meager flows entering the middle valley without storage releases would have allowed about 80 miles more of the Rio Grande to dry up last summer. Those who know what the real situation is in the middle valley see that the MRGCD’s storage and irrigation operations coupled with good habitat are critical to the minnow’s survival and recovery.
All groups with agendas overstate their case. But sadly the recent WildEarth Guardians news release misleads New Mexicans about the Rio Grande and the minnow, and the tremendous efforts their agencies and officials are making to save and recover it.
WildEarth Guardians will probably continue to spread misinformation to support their litigation and fundraising. Meanwhile, the MRGCD and its partners will move forward creating habitat, maintaining the “pearls,” and continuing to deliver water to the people of New Mexico who need and have the right to it.