San Juan river endangered fish in jeopardy because of Navajo Dam

River and Navajo activists call for decommissioning

provided by Living Rivers

he status of the endangered fish of the San Juan River has become supercritical despite efforts of the San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program, which started in 1992. At that time, fishery biologists working on the San Juan River were unable to find any adult razorback suckers and only about 100 adult Colorado pike minnows. Now, ten years later, even adult pike minnows cannot be readily found by the scientists and, for what natural reproduction does occur, the numbers are very discouraging for those who care about the plight of these endangered fish.

    “We are on the verge of completely losing the natural heritage of the San Juan River”, says John Weisheit, Living Rivers conservation director, “and unless something is done very quickly the San Juan River will become a graveyard rather than a productive nursery for these unique native fish.”

    The Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) has released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) proposing flow modifications for Navajo Dam to help in the recovery of habitat for these native fish species, but this can't work.

    The major issue is not flows from the dam, but the loss of habitat and the river's natural dynamic processes. San Juan River endangered fish must be able to spawn high enough in the river channel, such that hatchlings can become sufficiently strong prior to being flushed into Lake Powell reservoir and consumed by nonnative fish. “The only way to remedy this situation is to move forward with the decommissioning alternative for Navajo Dam,” adds Weisheit.

    Also not comprehensively addressed in the DEIS are the issues concerning the traditional medicine people of the Navajo Nation. Says Thomas Morris of the DinČ Medicinemens Association, “Navajo Dam has flooded and desecrated many of our sacred and holy sites. The traditional ways of the DinČ have not been respected and these sacred sites must be restored. The traditional people have not been consulted in this public process and we look forward to a future meeting to seriously discuss what is good for the long-term interests of the DinČ people, including productive alternatives for the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project and the Navajo-Gallup pipeline.

    Other deficiencies in BuRec's analysis include:

  • The other critical native fish nursery habitat in the San Juan river was inundated by Lake Powell reservoir. Therefore, a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement of the decommissioning of Glen Canyon Dam must also be undertaken to properly evaluate recovery options for San Juan River endangered fish.
  • BuRec's proposed alternatives were based on experiments that yielded no demonstrated recovery of native fish, and are based solely on meeting water delivery contracts within the San Juan system and to maintain nonnative trout habitat for sport fisherman.
  • BuRec does not sufficiently evaluate the impacts of potential future diversions on endangered fish habitat. The Animas-La Plata Project, Navajo-Gallup pipeline and further expansion of the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project will significantly reduce flows necessary for recovery of San Juan River endangered fish habitat.
  • The decommissioning of Navajo Dam will provide a net financial gain to Federal taxpayers, as the primary beneficiary of Navajo Dam is the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, which receives subsides averaging $1.5 million annually because of the project's inefficiencies.
  • BuRec makes no provisions for addressing the predation of native fish by nonnative fish such as catfish and stripped bass.
  • BuRec makes no provisions for mitigating the impacts on endangered fish habitat from pollutants found in the river, such as PCBs, mercury, DDT, selenium, chlorine and chlordane.

    The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has failed to restore a self-sustaining native fish population in the San Juan River as it flows through New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, and these new proposals offer more of the same.

    Restoration of the river ecosystem can be implemented by simply creating programs that conserve water in our communities and farms. Such programs will save money, taxes and increase productivity while saving the natural and cultural heritage of the San Juan River.