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Sanctuary Plan Unveiled

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    SANDIA PUEBLO— Sen. Pete Domenici is working with Sandia Pueblo to re-create a natural home for endangered silvery minnows along the pueblo's river banks.
    The plan was hatched one day last year when Sandia Pueblo Gov. Stuwart Paisano was visiting Domenici in his office in Washington, D.C., and commented on Domenici's public statement that it would be cheaper and less disruptive to bring minnows to existing water supplies instead of moving water to where the minnows live.
    In times of drought, the man-made habitat would allow minnows to live without depriving other water users, namely farmers and cities.
    On Tuesday, Domenici presented a minnow sanctuary plan to officials from the federal Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife in Albuquerque and then met Paisano at the pueblo's Sandia Lakes recreation area for a tour of the stretch of the river where the man-made natural habitat might be built.
    The sanctuary would be built on pueblo land on the east side of the river 31/2 to 4 miles north of the Alameda Bridge.
    Jack Garner, the manager of the Bureau of Reclamation's Albuquerque area office, said the idea sounds good at first blush.
    "I really give the senator credit for coming up with an idea like this," Garner said.
    Garner said the bureau will take three to four months to investigate technical questions and then report back to Domenici.
    Scientists and engineers will look at how to siphon water from the Rio Grande and re-create a natural river flow in a parallel pool or channel; how to keep the minnows in the sanctuary; how to re-create the sediment that minnows thrive in; and how to protect minnows from predators.
    "There's biological and engineering questions," Garner said.
    Efforts to keep the tiny minnow alive are directed by a biological opinion from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which governs water flows in the Rio Grande during times of drought. The proposed sanctuary would be meant to augment minnow populations in the river, not replace them.
    Subhas Shah, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District's chief engineer, agreed that Domenici's sanctuary plan is attractive because it would not require extra water.
    Water would flow into the sanctuary and then flow out.
    "We're not trying to take anybody's water— quite to the contrary," Domenici said. "We're trying to save the minnow and use less water. We don't have enough water to take care of all of the private needs, the public needs and minnow's needs. So we have to find ways to try to do it using the least water possible."
    Paisano said the idea will have to be approved by the Tribal Council, but that it appears to be a good use of pueblo lands for a good cause.
    "The Tribal Council is always looking for ways to be a good neighbor," Paisano said. "The minnow is an animal that needs to survive and it needs to have water and we definitely are supportive of coming up with alternative ways of living together without doing away with water for agricultural needs and obviously for our religious and cultural needs."
    Man-made changes to the river— irrigation diversion dams and flood control projects— eliminated the seasonal fluctuations that triggered spawning and interrupted the river's flow, which isolated minnow populations.
    Fish were trapped below dams and could not swim upstream to spawn and their eggs could not flow downstream.
    With the river so removed from its natural state, the population of silvery minnows has suffered and the fish was placed on the list of endangered species and came under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act.
    Minnows are being bred and raised at the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow Refugium at the Albuquerque Biological Park with great success, said Jim Wilbur, a Bureau of Reclamation biologist who manages the Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Act Collaborative Program work group.
    About 100,000 minnows are swimming in the refugium's tanks and another 80,000 have been released into the river this year, Wilbur said.
    Minnows for the Sandia Pueblo sanctuary would be supplied by the refugium or collected from the river, Garner said.