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For Immediate Release, August 23, 2010

Contact: Rob Mrowka, (702) 249-5821 or

Lawsuit Challenges Federal Giveaway of Wildlife Refuge Water
That Could Drive Endangered Fish Extinct

LAS VEGAS— The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit today challenging the Interior Department’s failure to protect the critically imperiled Moapa dace, a fish found only in the upper Muddy River and its tributary springs in Nevada‘s Moapa Valley Wildlife Refuge. The suit challenges plans to suck water out of the dace’s habitat as a way to test whether large-scale groundwater pumping sought to quench southern Nevada’s unsustainable thirst for water will drive the dace to extinction. The test pumping — which itself could pose serious danger to the dace — is expected to begin in the coming few weeks.

“The Interior Department has completely dropped the ball in Nevada in carrying out its mandate to protect this rare and struggling fish,” said Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based Center ecologist. “It has failed both in its role as manager of the Moapa Valley Wildlife Refuge and as the guardian of endangered species, and the Moapa dace may face extinction as a result.”

The Interior Department relinquished federal water rights for the Refuge in 2001 and 2006, allowing the Southern Nevada Water Authority and others to proceed with groundwater pumping tests at Coyote Springs in return for monitoring and an “adaptive management” approach to protecting Moapa dace.

Because the groundwater in the basin and connected basins is already overdrawn, the Nevada state engineer required test pumping before any more water rights could be considered in order to show that no harm would result to the dace and other rare species inhabiting the Moapa warm springs. Because the reduced flows and effects of dewatering the dace’s springs would not be apparent until too late to reverse the impacts, the planned tests could result in severe and irrevocable impacts to the species.

“The proposed pumping tests are the equivalent of playing Russian roulette with the survival of an endangered species,” added Mrowka. “The Interior Department should be defending the water rights of the Refuge, not sacrificing them to fuel unsustainable growth in Vegas.”

Today’s lawsuit seeks to force the Interior Department to carry out proper review, under the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, of its decisions to allow the groundwater pumping.

The Moapa dace was federally listed as an endangered species in 1967 and is also listed as protected and threatened by the state of Nevada. The dace requires warm waters, ideally around 85 degrees Fahrenheit. A 2007 survey of the Moapa dace population found 1,172 individuals. A survey the following year found only 460 individuals, and the latest survey, in 2009, found 534. The ongoing and proposed groundwater developments and withdrawals alter the flows from the springs and the precise temperature and water chemistry required by the dace. Adding to the threats to the dace was the Warm Springs fire this June, which damaged much of its habitat.

The Nevada state engineer has acknowledged the water right applications — which could drain as much as 16,100 acre feet per year from the aquifer that also provides water needed by the dace — could be risky for the fish. Before approving the pending water-right applications from the Southern Nevada Water Authority and Coyote Springs Investment, the water purveyors would need to conduct a “pump test” to stress the aquifer system and gauge the impacts on dace and other species. To accommodate these tests, the Interior Department agreed to give up part of its federal water right at the Refuge. The state engineer recently announced the tests would begin in August or September of this year.

Finally, the  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the Interior Department agency that manages wildlife refuges and implements the Endangered Species Act — has acknowledged that there will be adverse impacts to the dace and its habitat from the groundwater pumping.

The agency, however, did not conduct an environmental review, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act, before committing to the agreements that relinquished water rights to the Refuge. The purpose of the Act is to ensure that agencies look before they leap and provide for public participation in decision-making.

The Center is represented by Center attorneys Lisa Belenky and John Buse as well as by Julie Cavanaugh-Bill of Elko, Nev., and Matt Kenna of Durango, Colo..

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 255,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.


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