Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

ABQ BioPark Staff Silvery Minnow conservation work. Photo Courtesy NM BioPark Society

New Mexico’s artery of life, the Rio Grande, and the fate of the silvery minnow tells us much about how we are treating the river’s ecosystem. The once-mighty Rio Grande River’s flow began its decline in the 1960s following significant damming of the river. In addition to dams, the river’s ecosystem has been altered significantly over the past 100 years with the introduction of non-native fish species, warming river temperatures and decreased annual precipitation.

The Rio Grande silvery minnow was listed as an endangered species under the delineation of the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is also listed as endangered under New Mexico state law. Once abundant throughout the Rio Grande, the silvery minnow is now confined to a short reach of the Middle Rio Grande River. The strong flows that spur spawning and shallow eddies that support the silvery minnow have all but disappeared.

Over the past two decades, several strategies have helped ensure the survival of river ecosystems, meet downstream water obligations and rebalance inequities to the river and communities. Given the current effects of the climate crisis, these interventions may be far from enough. In June WildEarth Guardians sent federal and state water managers in New Mexico a  60-day notice of intent to sue stating it will file a lawsuit in federal court, if the water agencies don’t do more to protect and ensure recovery of imperiled species.

“The West is experiencing a collision of crises, and the Rio Grande is at its center,” said Jen Pelz, Rio Grande waterkeeper and Wild Rivers program director at WildEarth Guardians. “The path forward to a sustainable, climate resilient, living river will require learning to live within the river’s means and developing creative solutions that give a voice to values long ignored including flowing rivers, healthy ecosystems and equity for human communities.”

Each year thousands of captive-hatched silvery minnows are returned to the river, with well over a million having been released since the program started. Stranded fish are also recovered from pockets that have experienced severe drying and transferred to more reliably fuller parts of the river.

The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission recently requested $2 million in state funds from the Water Trust Board to build additional river and bosque habitats for endangered species and upgrade a Los Lunas fish hatchery. In November the board will approve a final project list for legislative consideration in 2022.

More than $150 million has been spent on such efforts since the fish was placed on the endangered species list in 1994. Past projects have included widening the river channel and removing invasive plants. If the board approves the application and it receives approval from legislators, the commission will design and build 200 acres of habitat in the Middle Rio Grande. At this point it’s hard to say if the conservation budget for the fish will keep up with emerging climate-related threats.

“The solutions we thought we had decades to implement to avoid a catastrophe need to be designed and implemented now. It’s like the saying that ‘the best time to plant a tree is 30 years ago and the next best time is now,’” Pelz said.