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Moapa dace
KLAS-TV Channel 8 News, August 13, 2010

Moapa Fire May Have Destroyed Endangered Fish Population
By Noah Greenwald

MOAPA, Nev. -- A massive fire near Moapa last month destroyed the Warm Springs Oasis, an environmentally-sensitive area unknown to many, until it burned.

One month later, Clark County fire investigators are still trying to find the cause. Suspicion has centered on a work crew that was clearing brush out of the springs, which is owned by the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

No matter what the cause, the fire has put the delicate springs on the public's radar screen.

It's not only about fire, it's about water. Most Las Vegans have never even seen the special little garden spot that is now scorched and covered with ash, but environmental groups have long viewed the site as a key battleground in their efforts to stop the proposed multi-billion dollar groundwater grab.

The fire has stepped up the timetable for planned legal action that could stop the water grab in its tracks, and at the center of it all is a tiny fish leftover from ancient times.

"This could well be the event that pushes them over the edge to extinction," said Rob Mrowka with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Mrowka says he got a chill down his spine when he saw the clouds of smoke covering the sky over Moapa's warm springs area back in early July. The fast moving blaze destroyed several homes and completely torched one of the most unique spots in the entire state.

Two years ago, Warm Springs was a shady oasis, thick with palm trees. Its trickling waters home to tiny fish that have survived here since the last Ice Age -- the Moapa Dace.

The Dace has been on the endangered list for decades. In 2007 there were fewer than 1,200 left, and then the mighty Southern Nevada Water Authority spent $69 million public dollars to buy Warm Springs, ostensibly to help preserve the fish in case the springs are affected by massive groundwater pumping in nearby Coyote Springs, site of a planned mega-development.

Did SNWA spend all that money to help a fish?

"It wasn't to protect the Dace, but it is in their interest if the Dace does well. They want to drain the ancient aquifers that the Dace relies on," said Mrowka. "If there wasn't a water grab going on, SNWA would never have purchased that property."

It is sort of like a canary in a coal mine. The springs bubbling out of the National Wildlife Refuge adjacent to the scorched oasis could be the first place affected by water pumping if thousands of homes were ever built in Coyote Springs.

But even without that development, SNWA wants the groundwater as well. A test pumping program has been ordered by the state engineer. The test pumps are already in place, stretching for miles on the road to Warm Springs.

Mrowka worries that even test pumping could be enough to dry up the springs and wipe out the Dace, and by the time anyone sees a problem developing, it would be too late.

"There is no question whatsoever in the science that pumping in Coyote Springs is going to affect Moapa Springs," he said. "The problem is once you stop pumping, it's not like turning off a faucet."

In light of how delicate the balance is, Mrowka is astonished SNWA hasn't been a better steward. After the agency assumed ownership, the number of Dace dropped in half. Neighbors say they've worried ever since that a big fire could happen because the area was overgrown and poorly cared for.

Ironically, it looks like the July fire may have been sparked by a crew hired to clear out brush and growth from the area. A torched vehicle and wood chipper are prime suspects as causes of the blaze. They were still sitting at the site weeks after the fire but have now been removed. Mrowka says it was a terrible idea to stick a hot wood chipper in the middle of dry brush and overgrown palms.

The real question is if the Dace survived the fire. A few of the Ice Age fish were spotted this week. Mrowka says federal agencies estimate there should be 6,000 dace to insure the survival of the species. There are nowhere near that number now.

And the worst may be yet to come. Huge plumes of fire retardant sprayed on the area might end up poisoning the remaining fish. Those that don't die soon could still be wiped out.

"If the wood chipper doesn't do them in, (then) the water grab and the draining of the ancient aquifers that feed those springs will do them in. They face a number of threats," said Mrowka.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental organization, is making no secret of the fact that it is preparing to go to federal court to sue not only SNWA but also federal agencies for their alleged failure to protect the endangered fish.

Mrowka thinks that if environmental laws are enforced as written, not only will the fish be protected but the planned water grab could be halted, maybe forever.

For the record, SNWA says it won't pursue the water grab unless it absolutely has to. It is also considering legal action against the contractor who might have started the fire but is waiting until the fire department finishes its investigation.


Photo © Paul S. Hamilton