Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 17, 2015

Contact: Noah Greenwald, (503) 484-7495,

Southern Utah Fish One Step Closer to Endangered Species Act Protection

Wasteful Water Use in Washington County Continues to Imperil Virgin River Fish

ST. GEORGE, Utah— In response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that the Virgin River spinedace may qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act and will now begin a full status review. The spinedace was once common throughout the Virgin River basin in northwestern Arizona, southeastern Nevada and southwestern Utah, but has lost more than half its range to dropping river levels caused by increased withdrawals, pollution and streamside habitat destruction.

Virgin River spinedace
Virgin River spinedace photo courtesy Utah Division of Water Resources. Photos are available for media use.

“The Virgin River spinedace is immediately threatened by water withdrawals that are drying up the Virgin and its tributaries,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center. "There can be no question that fish need water or that the spinedace needs protection under the Endangered Species Act."

The spinedace was proposed for protection as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in 1994, and 126 miles of “critical habitat” were proposed for its protection in 1995. The Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew the proposed listing in 1996 in response to the development of the Virgin River Spinedace Conservation Agreement and Strategy, which is a collaboration of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, state of Utah and several federal agencies. The goal of the strategy is to return the spinedace to at least 80 percent of its historic habitat and to re-establish enough flow in the river to maintain self-sustaining spinedace populations.

“Despite the spinedace conservation agreement, the Virgin River and its tributaries continue to suffer from lack of water that is harming the Virgin River spinedace, other endangered fish and the Virgin River as a whole,” said Greenwald. “Instead of ensuring that the Virgin River has enough water to sustain endangered fish like the spinedace, the water district recently spent nearly $1 million to build a fake river, where some spinedace were recently placed — this really is a travesty."

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.

Spinedace populations fluctuate based on the amount of available water. The spinedace is found in several reaches of the Virgin and its tributaries including the Santa Clara River, Beaver Dam Wash, Ash Creek, La Verkin Creek, North Creek, Shunes Creek and the North and East Forks of the Virgin River. Additional habitat within the Virgin River basin could be reoccupied if habitat conditions are improved.

The Virgin River was recently named one of the 10 ecosystems in the country most threatened by water depletion. The Washington County Water Conservancy District takes so much water out of the Virgin River that another endangered fish species, the woundfin, went extinct in the wild in 2007 within its protected “critical habitat.”

“There’s enough water for native fish and people to coexist in southern Utah,” said Greenwald. “The Washington County Water Conservancy District is causing these fish to go extinct by leaving only a trickle of water for the fish and the river. That's not a reasonable balance, especially since the district is one of America's most wasteful water users.” 

On average Washington County uses about 152 gallons of water per day, per person.  By comparison, Las Vegas uses 107 gallons, Tucson uses 92 gallons, and Albuquerque uses 80 gallons. This applies solely to secondary use and does not include agriculture — meaning that the district can fix this problem with little to no impact on people. 

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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