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Nevada Takes Important Step to Protect Endangered Fish

The Nevada state engineer today restricted groundwater pumping from a remote desert groundwater basin, throwing a lifeline to an endangered fish and crippling plans for a sprawling planned community 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

Today’s order is the latest development in a multi-decade effort to reduce groundwater pumping across a 1,550-square-mile region and save the Moapa dace, an endangered fish that lives only in certain groundwater-fed springs in the Muddy River area northeast of Las Vegas.

“We’re pleased that the state engineer recognizes that these critical groundwater supplies must be protected to save the Moapa dace from extinction,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “There’s still too much groundwater pumping, and further reductions are necessary to ensure long-term conservation and recovery.”

The dace has been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1967. But groundwater pumping across the Lower White River Flow System has reduced the spring flows that the fish needs to survive. Meanwhile, plans for a proposed suburban development called Coyote Springs threaten to increase pumping and potentially dry up the springs.

Coyote Springs could require tens of thousands of acre feet of water per year, and the developers’ plans are part of what necessitated State Engineer Tim Wilson’s order. The May demise of the Las Vegas pipeline plan substantially reduced the possibility that the project would be built. The developers’ only other option is to expand groundwater pumping from the Lower White River, which today’s order limits.

“This order may be the death knell for Coyote Springs,” said Donnelly. “Greedy real estate developers have no business building subdivisions in the middle of the desert, and now they have no water to do it with.”

Today’s order acknowledges that current groundwater pumping may harm the Moapa dace and that the state may be violating the Endangered Species Act if it allows more. The order limits pumping to 8,000 acre feet (2.6 billion gallons) per year, less than current levels but still double the level recommended by conservationists.

The Center has been fighting to save the Moapa dace for 15 years, intervening in numerous proceedings in front of the Nevada state engineer and litigating under the Act. A Center analysis by hydrologist Dr. Tom Myers found that pumping more than 4,000 acre feet per year would reduce spring flows and could eliminate the fish’s habitat. That would be a clear violation of the Act.

In a strange twist of fate characteristic of Nevada water politics, the Center’s historic opponent, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, agreed with the 4,000 acre-foot number. The water authority has played a central role in the conservation of the Moapa dace for decades.

“The Moapa dace is a cherished piece of Nevada’s remarkable biodiversity,” said Donnelly. “The state engineer took an important first step to save this special little fish. But there’s still far too much water being pumped from the basin, so we’ll keep fighting to ensure this species doesn’t go extinct.”

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