From the rim of Grand Canyon National Park, the big sky and remote canyons make it hard to imagine that a precipitous erosion of our natural heritage is being played out a mile below in the Colorado River. "The Colorado River in Grand Canyon is in trouble," said Nikolai Ramsey, senior program manager at the Grand Canyon Trust. "Today we are launching a major effort aimed at restoring the health of the river."
The Grand Canyon Trust, represented by Earthjustice, today filed a lawsuit against the federal government in an effort to stave off extinction of the humpback chub, a species that has plied the muddy waters of the Colorado River for four million years. The humpback chub, characterized by a prominent hump used like a rudder, are superbly designed to inhabit the wild, turbulent reaches of the Colorado River through the rugged canyons of the American Southwest.
"The humpback chub is the canary in the coal-mine for the health of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon," said Robert Wiygul of Earthjustice. "When we protect the humpback chub, we protect a functioning river ecosystem."
The Kolb brothers, two early river runners in Grand Canyon, came across a school of fish at the mouth of the Little Colorado River. They wrote, "On the opposite side of the pool the fins and tails of numerous fish could be seen above the water. The striking of their tails had caused the noise we had heard. The 'bony tail' were spawning. We had hooks and lines in our packs, and caught all we cared to use that evening." How could the humpback chub, inhabiting such remote canyon country in large numbers, become so rare that they are now in danger of extinction?
Threats to the survival of humpback chub and their native riverine ecosystem arise mainly from the many dams on the Colorado River and its tributaries. In Grand Canyon, the primary culprit is Glen Canyon Dam, located just upstream of the Canyon. This dam has tamed the once wild river, initiating a cascade of environmental changes that has already wiped out some native species and has seriously reduced the populations of humpback chub.
"Sandy beaches, once replenished every year with sediment carried during flood flows, are eroding to bedrock and eliminating native streamside habitats, irreplaceable cultural resources, and recreational opportunities," said Grand Canyon Trust scientist Rick Johnson.
In just 13 years, the humpback chub in Grand Canyon have declined by two-thirds, from 10,500 adults in 1989 to 3,500 in 2002. The federal plan released in 2002 to recover the endangered humpback chub defines a population as recovered at only 2,100 adults, a conclusion not supported by the best available science, and remarkably a lower value than when they were first listed as endangered.
"These recovery goals are based on politics, not sound science," said Wiygul. "This is a one-way ticket to extinction."
Ten years after Congress passed the Grand Canyon Protection Act in 1992, critical natural resources within Grand Canyon are still in serious decline. In 1996, Bruce Babbitt, then Interior Secretary and former Arizona governor, oversaw the release of a huge volume of water from Glen Canyon Dam in an experiment to see if natural river conditions could be replicated. That test resulted in a tremendous leap in our understanding of how this complex river system functions, but sadly the political will for additional large-scale management actions has vanished.
"The Grand Canyon is one of America's premier natural resources. No one wants to see the native species that evolved there over millions of years go extinct because of human carelessness," said Neil Levine, attorney for Earthjustice.
"The humpback chub is just the tip of the iceberg," added Nikolai Ramsey. "Four of eight native fish have already been lost from Grand Canyon; the humpback chub is poised to become number five. It's time to recover this fish and restore Grand Canyon."
Grand Canyon Trust protects and restores the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau. For more information and background, visit www.grandcanyontrust.org.
Robert Wiygul, Earthjustice (228) 374-0700
Nikolai Ramsey, Grand Canyon Trust (928) 774-7488
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.