So I’m all, like “view from nowhere” in this piece in this morning’s newspaper. I’m genuinely agnostic on the question of the fate of the silvery minnow, an endangered fish found only on the stretch of the Rio Grande that flows through Albuquerque and points slightly north and south. But I think we need to be frank about the fact that, whether explicitly or implicitly, we’ve all but decided to let the fish go, that human management and use of the river has precedence.
With the exception of a late push by the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, no one in the community seems to care. My phone’s not ringing off the hook with people upset about the minnow’s fate. No political actor with stature has stepped forward to give voice to those in the community whose values might align with Richard Nixon when he wrote, in signing the ESA back in 1973:
Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans.
The ESA’s shortcomings are on display here. As I wrote in my column, the minnow has already been extirpated from much of its range, and nobody gives a second thought to drying large stretches of this river so water can be stored for later use:
On the lower Rio Grande, below Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs, the silvery minnow is long gone. In that stretch of the Rio Grande, the river’s job is to deliver water to farms and cities, and if that human end is well-served by shutting down flows in the winter to save water for spring planting, we do it without question. No one has batted an eye about leaving the Rio Grande itself dry for more than eight months so that water can be stored up for a short irrigation season.
Instead, we’re left with a perverse set of policies in which water users who’ve already killed off the minnow on their stretch of the river bear no burden, while water users in the one place the fish is left – the Albuquerque reach – bear all the burden under the Endangered Species Act for keeping the remaining fish alive. But as biologist Jim Brooks argues in my story, the steps were taking this year will not likely be enough to save any wild populations of silvery minnows:
On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a plan that allows farmers from Sandoval to Socorro counties to continue diverting water from the Rio Grande to irrigate their crops while the flows are cut to a trickle through Albuquerque.
Stretches of the Rio Grande have dried before. Old-timers love to tell stories of the river’s sandy bed through Albuquerque during the drought of the 1950s, and point out that the minnow survived that drought and returned.
But this time is different, Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Jim Brooks told me Monday. In the 1950s, minnow populations survived the drought in fragments of river habitat to our north. When wet weather returned, so could the minnow. But those refugial habitats are gone, Brooks pointed out, destroyed in the 1970s by the construction of Cochiti Dam.
With no such refuges left, Brooks frankly acknowledged that he believes the operating plan approved by his agency last week will leave so little water in the Rio Grande that no minnows will survive in the wild. The only refuges left will be hatcheries, to be used to restart populations once wetter conditions return, Brooks expects.
Given the lack of political support for saving the minnow, this conclusion should not be surprising. But the point of this morning’s column was that we at least need to be up front about it.