The Virgin River is one of the most extraordinary, and most threatened, rivers in the Southwest. It flows through Zion National Park, and some of its tributaries were designated as Utah’s first “wild and scenic” rivers in 2009. Its headwaters are surrounded by mountain peaks more than 10,000 feet high, but it quickly drops through steep-walled canyons to the desert floor, where it winds its way to man-made Lake Mead, which flooded the last 25 miles of the river. The Virgin flows from Utah into northwestern Arizona and southeastern Nevada, and intersects three diverse physiographic regions: the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin Desert and Mojave Desert.
Over the course of its journey, the river varies dramatically in flow, salinity, turbidity and temperature, explaining in part why the Virgin sustains a broad array of wildlife, including desert bighorn sheep, many kinds of reptiles and amphibians, the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, and three fish species found nowhere else on Earth. The Virgin watershed is home to more than 80 imperiled species, including the endangered woundfin, endangered Virgin River chub and the highly imperiled Virgin River spinedace. These species are primarily threatened by human abuse of, and demands on, the river.
Today significant reaches of the river are run nearly dry because of human use. The situation is so dire that in 2005 the endangered woundfin, a silvery blue minnow, became extinct in the wild in its designated critical habitat because not enough water is left in the river for the fish to survive and reproduce. Populations are restocked but then perish due to lack of flow. Because of excessive water withdrawals by the Washington County Water Conservancy District, native fish like the woundfin, chub and Virgin River spinedace are continually threatened with extinction.
The Center’s Save the Virgin River campaign is focused in particular on saving the three fish species that survive only in the Virgin and nowhere else:
The woundfin is named for the spines on its sharply pointed fins, and it is the only species in its genus. It is one of the most highly specialized minnows in the world, with adaptations for living in swift, shallow, sandy desert streams. It lacks scales, has leathery skin and very small eyes, and is shaped like a small torpedo.
The Virgin River chub is the top native predator in the Virgin River and can grow to be 16 inches long. It’s a fast, streamlined fish with a sloped forehead, humped back and thin, rounded tail; it eats small fish, insects and bits of plants. The chub was once so abundant that it was a food source for Native Americans and early pioneers.
The Virgin River spinedace is a medium-sized, silvery minnow with a brassy sheen and black speckles. It develops orange, red and gold patches during the breeding season. The fin on its back has eight rays, the first two of which are hard, spiny and weakly fused, which gives the spinedace its name. There are only four species in the spinedace genus. One of them, the Pahranagat spinedace, is extinct, and the other three are at risk of extinction.
The Center is working to save the Virgin River and its tributaries and to protect the endangered and imperiled species that rely on it for their survival. The primary goal of our campaign is to get more water dedicated to the river itself, which will improve the river’s health and benefit the spinedace, woundfin, chub and other wildlife. We oppose projects that would pipe and divert even more of the Virgin’s tributaries, and we urge water conservation measures as an alternative. In 2010 we submitted comments opposing the Ash Creek Reservoir and Pipeline Project, which would destroy fish habitat in Ash Creek and decrease flows to the Virgin River. In 2012 we petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the Virgin River spinedace.
We are urging the Washington County Water Conservancy District to pursue conservation as an alternative to harmful water-development projects that would promote more sprawl and unsustainable growth in an increasingly arid region. The conservancy is the supplier of water for the city of St. George, Utah, which has one of the highest per capita water use rates of any western city. As the climate warms and human populations continue to grow, water will have to be used more efficiently to save the Virgin River and the wildlife that depend on it. Throughout the Colorado Basin, conservation must be pursued as an alternative to harmful water development so that wildlife and human communities both have a future in the region.