Filler Fish Out Of Water

The Little Colorado Spinedace May Face Extinction.
By Kevin Franklin

IN 1963, THE Phelps-Dodge mining company built the Blue Ridge Reservoir Dam along the Mogollon Rim 50 miles southeast of Flagstaff.

Out There A concrete monolith, the dam stands 160 feet high and 14 feet thick at its base. It took 27,000 cubic yards of concrete and now restricts the flow of East Clear Creek, forming the Blue Ridge Reservoir.

Meanwhile, the Little Colorado spinedace minnow measures at most a few inches long, eats bugs, lives in fragmented stream habitat in parts of Arizona and is a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Goliath, meet David.

When Phelps-Dodge built the dam, it split the East Clear Creek population of spinedace in half. The dam also reduces the flow of water into East Clear Creek, increases the creek's water temperature and provides a home for stocked trout, all of which adversely impact the spinedace, says Landi Fernley, appeals coordinator for the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity (SWCBD), a Tucson-based environmental organization.

Ever the champion of small, uncharismatic bug-eating fish, the Southwest Center folks filed suit in Arizona District Court against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (which regulates operation of the dam), the U.S. Forest Service (the land-management agency involved) and Fred Trevey, the Coconino National Forest supervisor. They claim the plaintiffs are in violation of the Endangered Species Act, and hope for a court ruling to require consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine the dam's effect on the fish.

The reason for the dam's construction involves a complex set of government and Phelps-Dodge deals ultimately providing water for the Morenci Mine, the largest open-pit copper mine in North America.

The Black River flows by the Morenci operation into the Salt River and ultimately to the mouths and golf courses of Phoenician movers and shakers, who look unkindly upon anyone--other than themselves--using tons of water. In order to use Black River Water, Phelps-Dodge made a deal to build the Blue Ridge Reservoir, 160 miles away. Blue Ridge water is pumped up and over the Mogollon Rim and into the East Verde River. From there it flows into the Verde River and ultimately Phoenix. It's a water swap and all's well that ends well, unless, of course, you're a little fish caught in the middle.

Before the Southwest Center filed suit and everybody clammed up, Tom Foster, Phelps-Dodge vice president and controller, said in an Arizona Daily Sun interview that his company is willing to work toward preserving the spinedace. However, the dam was built before the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and trying to undo it would be futile.

Significantly lowering the level of water or eliminating the reservoir would respectively drive Phelps-Dodge costs up or jeopardize the company's Black River water. The numerous trout anglers coming to Blue Ridge Reservoir probably won't be mailing donations to the Southwest Center, either.

"The suit is still pending," Fernley says. "Phelps-Dodge has made a motion to intervene. We initially sued just the Forest Service and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission."

In a remarkable irony, there is some concern the reservoir might go dry anyway, says Jeff Humphrey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman. The Blue Ridge area received very little rainfall and no snow during the winter months, the principal time for recharging the dam's water level. With no winter run-off and only a so-so monsoon season, the reservoir is far below capacity. Another dry winter could see Phelps-Dodge and the anglers facing their worst case scenario anyway--no water, no sport fish. On the other hand, the spinedace would go out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak, if the river dries out.

Life is full of hard knocks if you're a desert fish.


Blue Ridge Reservoir is located 20 miles north of Strawberry off Highway 87. Five miles past the fork for Lake Mary Road, look for Forest Service Road 751 heading east. Follow the signs for another five miles down a graded dirt road to the reservoir. TW

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