Lawsuit Launched Against Utah’s Washington County Water Conservancy District for Drying Up Virgin River, Driving Endangered Fish Toward Extinction

Key to Saving River and Fish Is Water Conservation by St. George, Utah

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah–(ENEWSPF)–December 9, 2013.  The Center for Biological Diversity and Utah Rivers Council filed a formal notice of intent today to sue the Washington County Water Conservancy District, which supplies water to the city of St. George, Utah, over its excessive withdrawals from the Virgin River that are leading to the extinction of two endangered fish — the woundfin and Virgin River chub. Beginning in the 1980s, diversion of water from the Virgin River into the District’s Quail Creek Reservoir has reduced flows and raised temperatures in the river, resulting in harm to both federally protected fish species — harm that could drive them over the brink of extinction.

Woundfin photo courtesy BLM. 

“If something isn’t done to stop excessive withdrawals from the Virgin River, two fish species found nowhere else on the planet will be lost forever,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center. “If the woundfin, Virgin River chub and the Virgin River itself are to have any shot at survival, St. George can’t continue to use nearly 50 percent more water on a per capita basis than Las Vegas.”

Since 1985 the District has been diverting most of the water out of the Virgin River directly above designated critical habitat for both fish. According to a 1982 biological opinion produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and agreed to by the District, the District was supposed to have allowed a minimum of 86 cubic feet per second to bypass the diversion for the river and fish. Instead it has been nearly drying up the river every year by adhering to a minimum flow of a mere 3 cubic feet per second past the diversion.

“There is enough water for native fish and people to coexist in Washington County,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council. “The 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.” 

The woundfin was relatively abundant in the Virgin through the 1970s, but since the District began diverting water into the Quail Creek Reservoir, the woundfin has undergone precipitous declines and was recently considered functionally extinct in the river, surviving only through hatchery plantings. In recent years the Virgin River chub has also undergone declines because of lack of flows and high temperatures in the river.

“The Washington County Water District is knowingly causing the extinction of the woundfin,” said Greenwald. “This is exactly why Congress passed the Endangered Species Act 40 years ago this month: to help us to balance our needs with those of the rest of the planet’s plants and animals. With a concerted effort to use water more wisely, there would be plenty for the river and people in St. George.”

On average Washington County uses about 328 gallons of water per day, per person. By comparison Las Vegas uses 223 gallons, Denver uses 168 gallons, and Albuquerque uses 150 gallons. This applies solely to secondary use and does not include agriculture, meaning the District can fix this problem with little to no impact on people.

The Endangered Species Act prohibits any person, which includes local governmental entities like the District, from harming endangered species. The notice filed today alerts the District that it is in violation of this prohibition.

The Virgin River was named one of the ten most endangered ecosystems in 2012 because of water withdrawals and the endangerment of native fish. In 2012, the Center petitioned for protection of yet another Virgin River fish, the Virgin River spinedace

Background on the Endangered Fish
The woundfin, named for spines on the sharply pointed fin on its back, is a 3-inch-long silvery blue minnow. It is one of the most highly specialized minnows in the world, with adaptations for living in swift, shallow, sandy desert streams. It lacks scales, has leathery skin and very small eyes, and is shaped like a small torpedo.

The Virgin River chub is the top native predator in the Virgin River and can grow to be 16 inches long. It’s a fast, streamlined fish with a sloped forehead, humped back and thin, rounded tail; it eats small fish, insects and bits of plants. The chub was once so abundant that it was a food source for American Indians and early pioneers.

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 Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 625,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Utah Rivers Council is a grassroots organization dedicated to the conservation and stewardship of Utah’s rivers and sustainable clean water sources for Utah’s people and wildlife. Founded in 1995, we work to protect Utah’s rivers and clean water sources for today’s citizens, future generations and healthy, sustainable natural ecosystems. We implement our mission through grassroots organizing, direct advocacy, research, education, community leadership and litigation.