CEDAR CITY — The Center of Biological Diversity intends to sue the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to protect a small fish it says is endangered by the Pine Valley Water Supply Project.
The lawsuit was prompted when the center says the agency failed “to protect the imperiled least chub under the Endangered Species Act.” The wildlife service missed the September deadline to make a final listing decision based on the center’s 2021 petition to have the fish listed, according to a news release published by the nonprofit.
The reason for the delay is unknown but it is not uncommon for the service to miss such deadlines, Krista Kemppinen, a senior scientist with the center, told Cedar City News.
The least chub, a gold-colored minnow that is less than 2.5 inches long, evolved to survive in the “extreme spring habitats” of the Bonneville Basin. But habitat loss and alternation, competition and predation from nonnative species have reduced its overall numbers, bringing it to the “brink of extinction,” the release states.
It is the state’s smallest minnow and the only representative of its genus, Kemppinen said, adding that it needs constant spring discharge in its habitat to survive.
“It depends on having enough water in enough quantity and quality, as well as marsh habitat to be able to fulfill all of its life stages,” she said.
Additionally, the fish preys on mosquito larvae and is a food source for other animals like frogs and birds, Kemppinen said. It is an “intrinsic part” of its ecosystem and without it, there is a potential for the “whole functioning of the ecosystem to become disrupted, with negative consequences for the plants and animals that depend on it.”
Conservationists have been concerned about the species “for decades,” the release states. The center previously petitioned the fish to be listed in 2007, which was found to be warranted at the time. But because of conservation measures implemented by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the finding was reversed in 2014.
If the fish were to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management, would need to ensure the actions they undertake, fund or authorize — such as the Pine Valley Water Supply Project — don’t jeopardize the species’ survival, Kemppinen said.
There are currently seven wild least chub populations and about 12 populations in human-made or seminatural sites, the release states.
“Which provide some assurances that if wild populations are lost, they can be replaced,” it reads. “However, in most cases, the long-term survival of these (introduced) populations is uncertain.”
The proposed water project puts over half the wild populations at risk as “billions of gallons of groundwater from Utah’s West Desert” are pumped to Cedar City, the release states.
“The actions that the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and their partners have taken to conserve the least chub, such as introducing populations, are not a strong enough counterbalance to the level of threat posed by this project,” Kemppinen said.
Formation Environmental prepared the Groundwater Resources Impact Assessment for the project in 2021 for Transcon Environmental and the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District, which studied the potential spring flow depletion in areas where the lease chub were identified, among other considerations.
The minnow has been identified in several regional springs in Northern Snake Valley, Fish Springs and other areas, Paul Monroe, general manager at the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District, said in an email. He added that these areas are “located outside the predicted area of project effects” and are about 70 miles north of the well field.
However, they are believed to be connected to the regional aquifer system and could be affected by project-related pumping, Monroe said. Because of this, the potential flow depletion of springs closest to the well field in Snake Valley — Big Springs, Clay Spring and the Deardon Spring Group — were evaluated.
Additionally, potential flow depletion was evaluated at Fish Springs because it is a National Wildlife Refuge and an area of “special environmental concern.”
The analysis found that depletion in the Snake Valley regional springs would range from about 0.1% to 0.9% of the total flow, and Monroe said the “effect would not be measurable or observable.” Depletion at Fish Springs is estimated at approximately 0.2%. The predicted effects can be found in the assessment, starting on page 114.
The impact on springs further from the aquifer system — such as Big Springs, Grandy Marsh and the Bishop Spring Group — is expected to be less, Monroe said.
Precipitation and evapotranspiration data from 2005 to 2014 was also analyzed for the impact assessment and found that the Pine Valley hydrographic area recharged at an estimated rate of 17,700 acre-feet.
Evapotranspiration refers to the processes by which water moves from the earth’s surface into the atmosphere via evaporation from soil and transpiration, or exhalation of water vapor, from plants.
Cedar City’s aquifer has a projected safe yield of 21,00o acre-feet per year, but users have been depleting the aquifer by about 28,000 acre-feet annually — a 7,000 acre-foot deficit, Cedar City News previously reported. An acre-foot refers to the amount of water to cover an acre of land one foot deep in a year.
Proponents of the $260 million project have estimated the Pine Valley Water Supply Project will bring in an additional 15,000 acre-feet of water per year via a 70-mile-long, underground pipeline from the Pine Valley area in Western Beaver County to Cedar Valley, according to the water conservancy’s website.
Kemppinen said that, in her opinion, the project’s impact assessment was too limited in scope and scale and how far into the future impacts were considered and that a more thorough analysis of impacts should be done.
Because the springs are located in an arid environment, they have “considerable influence over large areas” and provide a relatively constant habitat during droughts, she added.
The Great Basin Water Network commissioned an independent hydrological report by Roux, Inc., that found pumping in Snake Valley, along the Nevada-Utah border, could decrease spring flow or dry up the fish’s habitat there and in the Sevier Desert Basin, where four of the remaining seven wild populations are located, Kemppinen said.
Extracting groundwater from upgradient, or source, basins can decrease water levels in areas where the groundwater flows, such as the springs that least chubs rely on, Kemppinen said. The groundwater system is connected and if it is pumped from one location, it can impact areas “much further afield.”
“Even if the pumping stations are in Pine Valley, we know that the impacts will not be restricted to that area alone,” she said.
Roux, Inc.’s report, which cites the most recent United States Geological Survey data, found that the area would recharge approximately 11,000 acre-feet per year, which would cause a 4,000 acre-foot deficit if the estimated 15,000 is pumped.
“The proximity of the proposed Pine Valley Project to Snake Valley is likely to result in lasting water resource impacts in the area,” the report reads. “A reduced groundwater budget in Snake Valley resulting from induced underflow from Snake Valley toward Pine Valley is likely.”
Additionally, changes to the groundwater system would also likely affect springs in Nevada, such as those in Great Basin National Park, according to the report. Over time, Fish Springs would also be impacted.
If the petition is successful, Monroe said it could “slow some things down,” and the district will need to take a “hard look and investigate all potential impacts.”
“But that’s not going to change the science,” he said. “So maybe just a little thorough review of the analysis that the science has shown, but I don’t see it delaying (the project) significantly — just making sure that the analysis is complete and done appropriately.”
Additionally, Monroe said that the district has “done everything that’s required by federal and state law” and has hired engineers and hydrologists while going through the process.
“I feel like we’re doing a good job to thoroughly review and check to make sure that environmentally, we’re not going to harm others or harm the environment,” he said.
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