A race to save fish as Rio Grande dries up, even in Albuquerque

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — On a recent blazing afternoon in Albuquerque, off-road vehicles drove up and down a stretch of dry riverbed where the Rio Grande River normally flows. The drivers weren’t thrill seekers, but biologists hoping to save as many endangered fish as possible before the sun turned shrinking puddles into dust.

America’s fifth longest river dried up in Albuquerque for the first time in four decades last week. Habitat for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow – a shiny native fish the size of a pinky finger – accompanied it. Although summer storms have rewetted the river, experts warn that drying in this far north is a sign of an increasingly fragile water supply and that current conservation measures may not be enough to save the roach and still supply water to nearby farms, backyards and parks.

Inhabiting only about 7% of its historic range, the minnow endured a century of habitat loss when the nearly 1,900-mile-long (3,058 kilometers) river was dammed, diverted, and channeled from Colorado to New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico. In 1994, the US government listed it as endangered. Scientists, water managers and environmental groups have been working to keep the fish empathize — as required by the Endangered Species Act — but the efforts have not kept pace with water demand and climate change.

Years of drought, scorching temperatures and an unpredictable monsoon season are destroying what’s left of its habitat, leaving officials little else but hope for rain.

“They’re adapted to a lot of conditions, but not to figure this out,” said Thomas Archdeacon, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist responsible for a program to rescue the fish. “If you have power one day and no power the next, they don’t know how to get out.”

When parts of the river dry out, officials use hand nets and seines to pull fish from warm pools and move them to still-flowing parts of the river. The minnow’s survival rate after being rescued is small — just over 5% — due to the stress of warm, standing water and being forced to move.

Still, leaving the fish in the pools is a death sentence, Archdeacon said. He and the other biologists drove miles of dried-up riverbeds to where the water picked up again—at the outflow of a sewage treatment plant. Only a handful of the 400 rescued fish would survive, with the best chance of swimming through treated sewage.

Over the years, the government has bred and released large numbers of silvery minnows, but for the species to recover, it always comes down to habitat, officials say.

And there are few options left to get significantly more water into the river.

“Climate change is coming at us so quickly right now that it is surpassing the tools we’ve developed in recent decades,” said John Fleck, a water policy researcher at the University of New Mexico.

Historically, one way to send more water into the river had been to allow it to escape from upstream reservoirs. But this year, New Mexico has been unable to store additional water because of a downstream debt it owes Texas as part of a pact. Deep into the driest period the West has seen in 1200 yearsthe river was not replenished by rain showers that came in June.

“The timing and placement of the storms were not in the right place for the river to flow,” said Dave Dubois, a New Mexico state climatologist.

To keep more water in the Rio Grande, the state and irrigation districts are offering to pay farmers to leave fields unplanted, but so far few have chosen it. In New Mexico, small-scale farming is the norm and many farmers water their fields with ancient soils canals who walk through their backyards and also maintain the land for cultural reasons.

By setting aside their fields, farmers would help conserve water for the minnows and alleviate Texas debt. But officials say only 5% of the land has been left fallow in a key riverside district this year.

“We need more people to do it,” said Jason Casuga, chief engineer of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. But the program is only in its second year, and farmers want to grow crops, Casuga said.

For the past four years, Ron Moya has grown approximately 20 acres of hay and produce near Albuquerque. Moya, a retired engineer, said he was responding to a call to work the same land that generations of his family had farmed before him. Last year, Moya left 4 acres of his plot unplanted in exchange for several thousand dollars, but said he wouldn’t do it this year – even if he got more money – because he wanted the moisture to keep the soil alive on his farm. Moya is skeptical that vomiting alone will accomplish much.

“There are people whose livelihoods depend on growing their hay. That’s what they know. Can you imagine the whole valley lying fallow? That just seems silly to me,” he said.

Also, there isn’t much water to squeeze out of New Mexico’s largest city, Albuquerque. Like other western metropolises, the city of about 563,000 residents has drastically reduced its water consumption per capita, from about 250 gallons (946 liters) per day in 1994 to 119 gallons (450 liters) in 2019, according to data from the city’s water utility. Albuquerque also uses groundwater and water from the Colorado River.

According to Mike Hamman, the New Mexico state water engineer, “The low-hanging fruit has already been picked in Albuquerque, so now it’s getting a little more difficult.”

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The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for its coverage of water and environmental policies. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all AP environmental coverages, visit: https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

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