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The Spectrum and Daily News, December 9, 2013

Advocacy groups may sue water district

Lawsuit focuses on endangered species
By David DeMille

ST. GEORGE — A fight over the health of two endangered Virgin River fish species could end up in court, as two advocacy groups threatened Monday to sue Washington County Water Conservancy District.

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Utah Rivers Council filed a formal Notice of Intent, advising that it planned to sue the district over what the council alleges are excessive withdrawals of Virgin River water to Quail Creek Reservoir. The withdrawals, used to supply the district’s main culinary water source, have reduced flows and increased temperatures in the river, making it difficult for the endangered woundfin and Virgin River chub to survive, according to the letter.

“This diversion occurs directly upstream from the last surviving population of the woundfin and one of the only populations of the Virgin River chub, and leads to ‘take’ of both fish species and reduced survival through reduced flows and related increased water temperatures,” the letter states.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the withdrawals have consistently violated a requirement to allow a minimum of 86 cubic feet per second to bypass the Quail Creek diversion and supply the fish species’ habitat with an adequate amount of water.

“The Washington County water district is knowingly causing the extinction of the woundfin,” he said. “This is exactly why Congress passed the Endangered Species Act 40 years ago this month: to help us to balance our needs with those of the rest of the planet’s plants and animals. With a concerted effort to use water more wisely, there would be plenty for the river and people in St. George.”

Barbara Hjelle, associate general manager and counsel for the water district, said the letter indicates that the groups have little legal argument, saying the letter instead focuses on cherry-picked data and false presumptions.

There are two older diversions above Quail Creek in LaVerkin and Hurricane, neither of which are controlled by the district and both of which have been diverting water for decades, Hjelle said.

The district only diverts water into Quail Creek if river flows are supplying at least the required 86 cfs, Hjelle said. She added that the district can let natural flows, which are often less than 86 cfs, move past the diversion.

Hjelle said the letter fails to address what may be the largest threats to the endangered fish — invasive tamarisk plants that have reshaped the river channels and the red shiner, an invasive predator fish species.

“I think the biologists who are really paying attention to the Virgin River and its tributaries would tell you the biggest risk to the woundfin would be the red shiner,” Hjelle said, adding that the water district has helped push the invasive fish out of the area by following a complex plan that involves massive fish barriers and poisoning programs.

“Not only have we stopped the red shiner, we’re pushing it downstream, and I think any biologist who understands the Virgin River system would tell you that’s a success,” she said.

The letter suggests that the water district could take steps to improve flows by releasing more water past its diversions, arguing that better conservation efforts and more efficient water use would free up more water for the fish.

“The district is causing these fish to go extinct by leaving only a trickle of water for the fish and the river,” Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said. “That’s not a reasonable balance, especially since the district is one of America’s most wasteful water users.”

Water district officials have disputed the groups’ claims about wasteful water use.

The woundfin has effectively gone extinct in the wild and is being bred in hatcheries and stocked back into the river as part of the Virgin River Program, a cooperative recovery effort led by the water district, the Utah Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2012, the Virgin River was named one of the country’s 10 most endangered ecosystems in a report from the Endangered Species Coalition.

The letter states that the two advocacy groups would give the district 60 days notice before filing a civil suit, based on the citizen suit provision of the Endangered Species Act.


This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton