Plan for new dam threatens endangered fish

Whiteriver, Arizona (AP) 7-08

For decades, the loach minnow has vexed the White Mountain Apache tribe. The threatened fish has prevented them from damming a wild stream to provide water for tribal residents.

Until now. The Apaches have recently settled a water rights dispute with the federal government and plan to transform a section of the minnow’s river habitat into a reservoir.

Tribal Chairman Ronnie Lupe said two previous efforts to develop a water supply on the White River were blocked when the fish became an environmental obstacle.

Lupe, chairman of the White Mountain Apaches for most of the past three decades, said he has an affinity for nature and worked to protect endangered species, such as the spotted owl and Apache trout.

“We are, by birth, close to the land,” he said. “It’s our culture and tradition.”

But aquifers are almost empty near the tribal capital of Whiteriver, so Lupe is pressing for construction of the so-called Miner Flat Dam 10 miles to the north.

“We have an abundance of streams and rivers, but we don’t have any groundwater,” he explained. “We need it so bad, it’s pitiful.”


Loach minnows once flourished throughout the Gila River system in Arizona and New Mexico, from alpine streams to the Salt River in Phoenix. Today, Tiaroga cobitis survives only in a handful of isolated waters where roads, logging and other development have not eliminated rocky riffles.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the loach minnow as “threatened.” The International Union for Conservation of Nature describes it as “vulnerable.” And the fish may lose more critical habitat if a dam gets built.

John Nystedt, a biologist with Fish and Wildlife, said his agency does not have records on the loach minnow at Fort Apache and would be prohibited from divulging such information anyway. Out of respect for Indian sovereignty, Nystedt said, the service treats tribal data on endangered species as “proprietary” and, therefore, exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Paul Marsh, a fisheries professor at Arizona State University who created a recovery program for loach minnows years ago, condemned the secrecy and said prospects for the minnow’s survival in the wild are worse than ever.

“There’s virtually no technical information that comes off the reservation,” he said. “It’s by design. The scientific community has been blinded for many years by the tribe and by the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

The White Mountain Apache Tribe has about 15,000 enrolled members. Most live on sovereign Indian lands covering 2,600 square miles of eastern Arizona, an area larger than Delaware.

Like many indigenous groups, the Apaches have battled the federal government and Arizona special-interest groups for years over water.

However, Lupe recently met with representatives of the Department of the Interior and other agencies in Washington, D.C., hammering out a deal that is expected to deliver millions of federal dollars to his people.

The Apaches so far have won support from U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl and other key forces.

“Miner Flat Dam was a conflict at one time,” noted Dave Roberts, water-rights manager for Phoenix-based utility Salt River Project. “We are getting very, very close to resolving that dispute.”

Kyl co-sponsored a bill to provide $1 billion for water projects in Indian country. Roberts said Congress could begin hearings on an Apache settlement bill as soon as September.

Lupe insists that there won’t be a conflict with nature. Loach minnows are being raised in a hatchery on the reservation, he explained, so they do not face extinction.

“They will not be killed,” he said. “They’ll be well and alive. There’s always been a cohesiveness with the land and all living species.”