Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, January 11, 2016

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

Lawsuit Launched to Protect Virgin River Spinedace

Wasteful Water Use, Urban Sprawl in Washington County Continue to Imperil Southern Utah Fish

ST. GEORGE, Utah— The Center for Biological Diversity today filed a formal notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect the Virgin River spinedace under the Endangered Species Act. 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
Photo courtesy Utan Department of Wildlife Resources. Photos are available for media use.

In September the Fish and Wildlife determined that the spinedace may warrant protection in response to a petition from the Center, but the agency missed a 12-month deadline to propose protection or determine it is not warranted.

“The Virgin River spinedace needs immediate protection to have a chance at survival and recovery,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center. “Fish need water, and there’s no question that the spinedace needs protection under the Endangered Species Act to get the water it needs to survive.”

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. Since the strategy was developed, threats have increased and the fish has not recovered. 

“Despite the spinedace conservation agreement, the Virgin River and its tributaries continue to suffer from unnaturally low flows that are harming the Virgin River spinedace, other endangered fish and the Virgin River as a whole,” said Greenwald. “There’s enough water for native fish and people to coexist in southern Utah. It just needs to be better conserved.”

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 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.

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 — irrefutable evidence 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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