GRAND JUNCTION (AP) – Once dismissed as a “trash fish,” the Colorado pikeminnow has come to be regarded by Western Slope water officials as a powerful ally, one they hope retains its usefulness even when the magic of an endangered-species listing is gone.
And the listing could be gone relatively soon, once officials figure out how to deal with an infestation of walleye, an invasive predator that makes mincemeat out of pikeminnow juveniles.
The pikeminnow, along with the other three endangered fish species of the upper Colorado River, has been useful to western Colorado in that federal and state officials have worked diligently under a 30-year-old recovery program to ensure that there is enough water in the river to keep the fish alive.
“We’ve got the benefit of that,” said Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, one of the last diverters of water as the Colorado approaches Utah through the 15-mile reach of the Grand Valley, a critical pikeminnow spawning ground.
“Sometimes they’re our friends and sometimes they are not,” Larry Clever, general manager of the Ute Water Conservancy District, said of the endangered fish. “At this point they’re probably our friends.”
That’s a leap for Clever, who confessed that he long thought the best thing to do with a pikeminnow on the hook was to throw it back. “Way back.”
If the pikeminnow, however, is removed from the list of endangered species – and it was on the first list drawn up half a century ago – that means the recovery program could also go. It is set to expire in 2023.
During its three decades, the program has been used to keep water in the river while accommodating more than 2,000 diversions from the main stem of the river and its tributaries, including 1,225 in Colorado alone, all with no lawsuits.
Should the fish be delisted and the recovery program go away, the approach it inspired should remain, said Patrick McCarthy, deputy director of the Colorado River program for The Nature Conservancy.
When the fish is taken off the endangered list, “We just declare victory and keep working,” McCarthy said.
What victory looks like, though, isn’t clear, said Harry Crockett, who represents Colorado Parks and Wildlife on the recovery project’s biology committee.
“What happens after delisting is a really good question and one the recovery program is wrestling with right now,” Crockett said. “Who does all these things after the fish are no longer listed and there’s no longer a recovery program?”
Not the least of those questions concerns money. The recovery program has cost $380 million since it was established in 1989, the bulk of the costs being picked up by sales of hydroelectricity generated from dams along the Colorado system ($96 million,) the Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal contributions ($189 million,) Colorado, $24 million and a variety of other sources.
The key issue, though, is species recovery, Crockett said.
“It’s important to us to recover the fish,” he said. “We are not resigned to having these fish on the list.”
The Colorado water plan wasn’t predicated on the continued endangered status of four of the river’s fish species, said James Eklund, who headed the Colorado Water Conservation Board during the plan’s drafting.
“I’d hope the plan would still be relevant” should the fish recover, Eklund said. “The goal of any listed species should be delisting after having been recovered, I would think.”
Whether endangered fish are an ally of Western Slope water interests ought not be a question, said Greg Walcher, a Grand Valley fruit grower and former chief of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
“There is no scenario under which having species in danger of extinction is better than having fully recovered healthy populations,” Walcher said in an email. “There will always be plenty of reasons to oppose further Front Range water diversions, and to ensure Colorado’s water entitlement is not threatened by downstream states, federal regulations, or transmountain diversions. But water issues should be decided based on Colorado and interstate water law, not the distraction of federal species regulation.”