The story was originally published on Mother Jones.
The manager of the Ouray National Fish Hatchery told me that the fish in the tank were the most threatened in North America. There are dozens of juvenile bonytail, one of the few native Colorado River fish that are still alive.
I arrived at the hatchery in May and it was already wet. The tall, rangy man didn't seem to have a moment to stand still as he wore fish eggs and a pink polo shirt. Two of the Colorado River basin's fish are raised elsewhere. The razorback had been injected with hormones three days before and the team had a short time to capture them. I came to help with the spawning and learn more about how the fish are faring after more than two decades of dry weather.
The native razorback has been in the Colorado River basin for at least 3 million years, making them the dinosaurs of the river. The bottom-feeding fish were once an important part of the river's food chain because they nosh on dead plant and animal matter that may otherwise build up and cause disease. The fish have adapted to the desert rivers that flood in the spring and are dry in the late summer because of the monsoons. The suckers can grow up to three feet long and weigh 80 pounds. Today's fish are rare in the wild.
Since humans began damming the Colorado and its tributaries to make the western desert bloom, the native fish have suffered. They are a bellwether for the health of the entire river system, from Wyoming to the Gulf of California.
The past two years have been particularly brutal, as the worst dry spell in at least 1,200 years has caused the Colorado River to collapse. The plight of the razorback and the other native Colorado River basin fish are examples of how climate change magnifies a whole slate of existing threats to the fish.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service first listed the razorback as an extinct species in the Upper Basin in 1991, but in 1996 it was included in the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. Last year, the FWS proposed to downlist the razorback from "endangered" to "threatened" because of the program's success. The proposal seems to be wildly optimistic because of the recent mega-drought.
Bart Miller is the healthy rivers director for Western Resource Advocates and he says that they have had a number of dry years. He says that there is less water in the rivers. Lower water levels can leave fish stranded when their habitat gets fragmented into pools, while lower flows mean higher temperatures for invaders.
Over the past two decades, the level of water in the Colorado basin has plummeted. The lake behind Hoover Dam is so low that the remains of people are being recovered. The Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell in 1963, and it has dropped 165 feet since then. 5 million people will have to find another source of power if the dam falls another 43 feet.
The seven states that rely on the river to supply 40 million people with water are scrambling to find a way to voluntarily cut consumption. Water managers and state officials failed to come to an agreement on how to make the cuts, and the US Bureau of Reclamation is poised to impose federal water mandates on the states. There are many competing interests that claim a share of the ever-shrinking river. Even the motorboat lobby, houseboat aficionados, and Jet Ski enthusiasts have organized to demand that the Bureau refill Lake Powell. Edward Abbey proposed in his 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, that the Glen Canyon Dam should be blown up.
There are ancient fish in the tanks and ponds of the Ouray Hatchery. The tuba-lipped fish have some rights to the Colorado River water. Matthew is the native aquatics project leader for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. That is something worth preserving.
Despite the best efforts of the hatchery workers who were trying to get some eggs out of a couple of tanks full of ripened razorback suckers, their future doesn't look good.
The Ouray National Fish Hatchery is a small facility located at the northern end of the Ouray National Wildlife refuge in eastern Utah. In the refuge, the muddy waters of the Green River trickle through a lovely riparian space full of cottonwood galleries, mule deer, elk, migrating birds, and a species of rare hookless cacti. It is a critical habitat for the razorback, and in some ways the fate of refuge is almost as precarious as that of the fish sheltered there. The major oil and gas fields of Utah's Uinta Basin are referred to as "Mordor" by local environmentalists.
The oil and gas reserves underneath the refuge are owned by the Fish and Wildlife Service but the mineral rights underground are controlled by a collection of private interests. Two test wells were proposed to be drilled just feet from the fish Hatchery.
A report obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity states that a fish hatchery is only as good as its water source. It could cause a complete loss of the facility and necessitate a complete relocation of the entire operation if the water supply is contaminated. Estimates do not include the high recovery value of the fish housed at the facility, the loss of genetic material, or the lengthy time to recover if these resources were lost. The Ouray NFH contains resources that are priceless, rare, require long-term work, and are critical to recovery, so special risk management needs to be considered.
The proposal was put on hold after the price of oil plunged. The proposal to drill wells inside the refuge was approved by the Trump administration. The state of Utah gave final permits last fall. The US Fish and Wildlife Service says that most of the oil and gas wells are far from the river. The potential for spills has been rare.
The entrance to the refuge is on State Route 88, which is across from a couple of oil pumpjacks. The fish hatchery, a nondescript, low-slung concrete building, smelled more like fish than anything else. The tour was quick because most of the work was done in one room. There were pictures of fish and newspaper clippings on the bulletin boards in the lobby. The main room had a high warehouse ceiling and a network of metal gratings for drainage. There is a sign over a walk in fridge.
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the hatchery has a modest budget of $640,000 and relies on volunteers to help with the spawning. Today, with promises of burgers on the grill and fresh watermelon for lunch, Olsen has enlisted the assistance of a facility maintenance man, a retired Fish and Wildlife Service staffer, and a couple of guys from the trout hatchery at Jones Hole.
A few workers in waterproof boots joked with each other over the low roar of water pumps that churned a dozen or so fish tanks that looked like smaller versions of above ground swimming pools. They were serious about the work. When Russel Daniels asked if Olsen had ever eaten a fish, he and his colleagues recoiled with horror. The steep fines and possible jail time for harming the rare fish were cited by an unsmiling Olsen.
After my tour, I wear a big yellow apron and join a huddle around a big fish tank for a lesson on fish spawning. Thompson has a title that understates his duties. I watch as he extracts a female fish from a water tank and holds it for Olsen, who explains that the fish are equipped with PIT tags that track them after they are released into the wild. There is no Ichthyological intermarriage here. He waves a wand over the fish and then throws a towel over his shoulder to dry it off. It is important to keep the females dry because razorback sperm will only live for 60 seconds if it gets wet.
Thompson cradles the big fish as Olsen gently massages its soft white belly and sends a stream of eggs into a plastic bag under its tail. Milking a cow is not the same as this. Thompson puts the fish in a different tank and takes over the belly rubs.
I don't know if I want to hold a dinosaur of my own. I do. One of the cool things I have done is spawning razorbacks. The stakes appear high. The headline is "Reporter drops, kills rare fish." The razorback flopped when I pulled her out by the tail. Thompson rubbed his hand on her underside while I covered her eyes. She is told that the misery will be short and that it is for a good cause. She seems like a good choice for a rare fish. I return my charge to her pool after she gave up her eggs.
After adding sperm to the bag and giving the mix a tannic acid wash, workers take the fertilized eggs to a special isolation room to be kept free of parasites andbacteria. At least 10,000 fry will show up with luck. They would feed on zooplankton in the wild, but here they will eat brine shrimp from the Great Salt Lake for two years, graduating from the tanks to half-acre-long rubber-lined ponds.
The ponds are covered with nets and ropes to keep out birds that view the fish rich ponds as an all-you-can- eat Chuck-A-Rama. The fish are released into the wild after two years. The majority will make it to the river.
Few of the fish will reach their natural lifespan of 40 or 50 years after they've been released. The last native population of fish was gone in the early 2000s. Some adult razorbacks have been seen in the river in the past few years, a sign of hope. The first confirmed wild-recruited razorback sucker in the Upper Basin has been seen recently.
None of it would have been possible without the Hatchery.
The Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program was created in 1988 by water users, electric companies, state and federal agencies, and Native American tribes to try to recover the four fish species that once were plentiful in the Colorado. The entities that had caused the fish's demise came together to try to save them. This wasn't just an exercise in helping people. The program was created to head off lawsuits under the act, which requires states to consider fish habitat when green-lighting projects that would drain more water from the river basin. The cooperative program is a sea change from the past, when many of the same agencies were trying to kill off some of the native fish in the interest of economic development.
The agencies that are now involved in the fish recovery program are partly to blame for their downfall. The Flaming Gorge dam on the Green River was built by the US Bureau of Reclamation in 1962. The dam would provide immense economic benefits to the region, not just by providing water for irrigation and development, but also by creating a massive lake stocked with non-native trout to attract visitors who like fishing.
The managers of western water knew that the artificial lakes would quickly fill up with trash fish, like the carp, that devoured all the native fish. The poison rotenone was spread over almost 500 miles of the Green River before the dam was closed. 450 tons of fish were killed in a three day period. Dead fish were found as far away as Dinosaur National Monument, where officials had promised the fish wouldn't be affected. Stewart Udall, the interior secretary at the time, apologized to the chair of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists for the disaster.
The poison didn't kill the fish. The natural side channels and wetlands of the Green River were destroyed when the water from Flaming Gorge was too cold for the razorback to thrive. Water releases from Flaming Gorge have been timed to mimic the natural flows of the river in order to give the razorback a fighting chance. Scientists have been working with the bureau to create wetlands on the Green for fish habitat, which has been moderately successful.
There are new threats to the fish from the climate change driven dry spell. Most of the funding for the fish recovery program comes from the sale of hydropower at the dams. The fish recovery program has a deficit.
The population in states that are dependent on the Colorado River is growing, as is the demand for water. Utah, which has the lowest water rates in the southwest and uses more water per capita than any other state, has refused to impose measures adopted in other basin states to cut down on wasteful water use. A basic requirement for figuring out how much is being used by whom and how much can be cut is that most of the water in Utah isn't metered.
Lake Powell needs more water. Without big cuts in consumption, the obvious solution is to steal water from somewhere else. Flaming Gorge is the habitat for the razorback suckers raised at the hatchery, which makes it a ripe target for state agencies looking to avoid other, painful cuts to water use.
The Bureau of Reclamation said earlier this year that it would release half a million acres of water from Flaming Gorge to try to stabilizing the downstream. The releases should benefit the razorback sucker in the short term. It is robbing Peter of his money. The Colorado River basin has been oversubscribed for decades, with states claiming rights to more water than remains in the river. The winter's diminished snow cover has led to the draining of its major basins. The temperature in Salt Lake City was a new record.
The system is approaching a tipping point and without action we can't protect it. The people of the American West need to be protected.
Non-native fish are the biggest threat to the Colorado's fish. The Upper Colorado River Basin is home to only a dozen native fish. More than 50 species are competing in the river. The razorback and many other predatory sport fishing species have not evolved to survive after being introduced.
A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman told me in an email that warmer, low flows also benefit smallmouth bass, a fish that poses a problem. The Colorado pikeminnow and the non-native smallmouth bass hatch in the summer and grow quickly.
The recovery program spends more than $2 million a year trying to remove non-native fish from the Green River and elsewhere in the system, a move that is not always popular with local fishermen. He says he loves smallmouth bass. I fished for smallmouth bass when I was a kid. That is where they should be. The bass are not supposed to be in that river.
Warm water flowing through the Glen Canyon dam in Lake Powell is allowing the invasion of smallmouth bass, which had been contained to the upper Colorado Watershed. The bass are starting to gain a foothold in Grand Canyon, the last pristine habitat for the humpback chub, a native Colorado River fish that had its status slashed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. All that progress could be undone by the bass.
McKinnon is not sure if fish like the razorback raised in a hatchery are recovered enough to be taken off the list. He says that the program has proven to be an excellent exercise in feeding non-native bass, but not creating the self- sustaining populations that recovery requires. The public investment has been made in the program, but the fish are not able to reproduce in the wild. The fish are eaten by non-native fish.
In March, Breen co-authored a paper in the journal of the American Fisheries Society, arguing that the Colorado's fish need more water in the river in order to survive. Climate change and human water use will likely cause native species populations to decline as flows are further reduced, according to the authors.
It's obvious that more water is the answer. Real estate developers committed to lawns and golf courses, alfalfa farmers, and big California cities are not likely to sacrifice water to save fish. The White River, which meets the Green not far from the Ouray hatchery, has the natural water flow needed to sustain the native fish. Water companies have had their eye on the White for a long time.
The future of the razorback sucker depends a lot on the Ouray hatchery. I took a photo of Olsen at the end of my visit holding up a life-size model of the Colorado pikeminnow. The recovery program gave me some cards. He does a messy, wet job that is almost all that stands between a fish and extinction. I think he is working among the water dinosaurs. Olsen smiles and says, "It is pretty cool, isn't it."
The Water Desk is a journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder. Lighthawk provides aerial support.