By Jen Pelz, Bethany Cotton [Letter to Editor\
Regarding the Journal editorial “Update Endangered Species Act for minnow and ABQ water users,” 40 years ago, Congress had both the vision and the political will to pass the Endangered Species Act, our nation’s safety net for plants, fish and wildlife on the brink of extinction.
When signing the act, President Richard Nixon said, “This legislation provides the federal government with needed authority to protect an irreplaceable part of our national heritage – threatened wildlife.”
The act recognizes the national interest in preserving endangered species and embodies the precautionary principle, acknowledging a social responsibility to protect the public and the environment from harm. The law stands for the premise that all species have an intrinsic right to exist and it requires that decisions be based on the best available science – not politics or profit.
The authority provided under the act has proven wildly successful in preventing extinction and in recovering a number of species from the tiny Oregon chub to the majestic bald eagle. While the passage of the act was not about partisanship, the recent attacks on it, including by the Journal’s editorial board, certainly are.
In New Mexico, the silvery minnow – a small, yet invaluable fish that inhabits the Rio Grande and depends on its dynamic flows for survival – provides an easy target for opponents of the act. Over the years, some have questioned its value and, as the Journal’s editorial board recently suggested, believe this native fish should be sacrificed to quench the thirst of the ever-growing population and agriculture in central New Mexico.
If we give up on the silvery minnow, however, a long list of other imperiled species are next in line: the Southwestern willow flycatcher, the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, the yellow-billed cuckoo. The list goes on and on. It is the Rio Grande itself that is endangered.
Sacrificing the minnow ignores and oversimplifies the true range of environmental casualties occurring due to current management of the Rio Grande.
The conditions necessary to sustain the silvery minnow: dynamic and year-round flows, and connected river reaches, are not only crucial to a broad range of plant and animal species in the region, but also vital to the people who depend on the river.
For example, robust spring flows that cue spawning in the silvery minnow also allow water to enter the historic floodplain, nourishing native willows and cottonwoods, the very bosque that we depend on for our quality of life and that countless animals depend on for their survival.
Keeping water in the river year-round not only provides life to hundreds of fish and wildlife species using the stream corridor, but also contributes significantly – roughly $3.8 billion was generated through outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing in 2006 – to the state’s economy.
We need to shift the conversation away from scapegoating the silvery minnow and look at the big picture of how to allocate water between competing uses without threatening the quality of life for all New Mexicans.
Ultimately, the Rio Grande needs a right to its water. Sadly, the course advocated by the Journal, namely pushing the silvery minnow to extinction, falls far short of protecting the rights of the Rio Grande and, in turn, all New Mexicans.
Thankfully, we have better solutions. Federal and state agencies need to establish, support and fund a voluntary agricultural water acquisition program to secure water for the river. Such a program would compensate farmers for foregoing use of their allocated irrigation water in a given year and instead dedicate it to the river. Further, the agencies can and should use their respective authorities to modify and integrate reservoir operations to generate and sustain dynamic peak flows in the river.
Purported solutions that advocate for the silvery minnow’s extinction or, worse, gutting the Endangered Species Act are simply too extreme. WildEarth Guardians believes a path forward exists that will allow the Rio Grande to thrive, in turn enabling New Mexico to thrive.