Catch 22

by Joshua Zaffos

Navajo Dam, N.M. - It's a Thursday morning in October, and I count 58 vehicles in the parking lot next to the "Texas Hole" of the San Juan River. A mile or so downstream of the 402-foot high dam, this stretch of water is named for the Texans who used to fish for trout here with garlic cheese. Bait fishing is no longer allowed, and the Texas Hole has developed a near-mythic reputation among fly fishers for the finicky trout that hunker deep in the pool.


The San Juan River is home to a wriggling trout fishery that has flourished since the Navajo Dam was completed in 1962. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish began stocking trout soon after the dam's completion, and in order to ensure the trout's success, the agency eradicated "rough fish," poisoning native species such as the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker. Since then, the river downstream of the dam has been called the "classic Western tailwater trout fishery" by ESPN Outdoors, and people come from as far away as Japan to fish its waters. Biologists estimate there are 2,000 trout per mile, each fish an average 17 inches long.


That may soon change: This September, the Bureau of Reclamation released a draft environmental impact statement outlining steps to restore the native pikeminnow and sucker, both protected under the Endangered Species Act. The recovery plan aims to undo some of the damage that will be caused by the Animas-La Plata project, the last great project of the go-go dam-building era, which received final approval in 2001 (HCN, 8/27/01: A-LP gets federal A-OK).


On the surface, the Bureau's intentions appear admirable. But critics say the recovery plan is just another ruse to take water from this beleaguered river for farms in the desert and homes and lawns in growing cities. In addition, the plan would likely decimate the trout fishery — and the local economy that depends on it.


The Navajo Dam put the pikeminnow and sucker in a vise. Confined by Navajo Dam upstream and Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam downstream, the few fish that remained were restricted to one-third of their original habitat in the San Juan.


The Animas-La Plata project, first authorized in 1968, promised to tighten the screws by diverting water from the Animas and La Plata rivers, tributaries that feed the San Juan 45 miles downstream of Navajo Dam, near the city of Farmington. The two rivers provide spring floods that create essential habitat for juvenile pikeminnows and suckers.


Over two decades, Animas-La Plata was scaled down, but in its final form, it will still divert water from the Animas River. To remedy the project's negative impacts on native fish, the Bureau called for water releases from Navajo Dam that would "mimic a natural hydrograph" - releasing spring peak flows to simulate floods.


But spring releases from Navajo Dam will mean less water behind the dam during summer months, when Indian and Anglo farmers and New Mexico cities are thirsting for it. So, the Bureau reasoned, high spring flows will have to be offset - the river could be reduced to half its current size for all but a few weeks out of the year.


Ron Bliesner, an environmental consultant for several tribes with stakes in Navajo Reservoir, says the recovery plan is a trade-off: "You need to keep as much water stored (behind the dam) as possible. The (endangered) fish need a certain amount of water and the (water development) projects need a certain amount of water." Water for other purposes, such as the trout fishery, must be restricted.


So far, the Navajo Nation has been the only water player on the San Juan to embrace the plan because it ensures water for tribal farmers. But businesses, citizens and government officials in the local towns of Farmington and Bloomfield oppose the Bureau's plan because the low flows will negatively impact wastewater treatment, hydroelectric production and tourism.


Perhaps most directly affected by the plan are the outfitters and guides who lead trout-fishing trips below Navajo Dam. They argue that the recovery plan could send the San Juan trout fishery into a biological and economic tailspin.


Rob DaCosta is a fishing guide with a fisheries biology degree. Across the counter of his fly shop, Float'n Fish, he tells me the low summer flows will eliminate habitat, reduce aquatic insects that fish eat, increase water temperature, promote disease, and exacerbate angling pressure upon trout.


In addition, the low flows would make it impossible to float guided boat trips on the river — trips that DaCosta and 90 other guides lead for about $300 a pop. According to the San Juan Guide Association, river outfitters could lose more than $3 million dollars if the Bureau's plan is implemented.


My room at Abe's Motel - the oldest fishing lodge in the community of Navajo Dam - doesn't have a working smoke detector or door lock. But Abe's offers guests a wide variety of flies in its shop, a hook outside each room to hang and dry waders, and the services of fishing guides "born 'n' raised" below Navajo Dam. It's obvious what draws people here: It's not the accommodations, but the lunker trout that live downstream of the dam.


These trout mean little to some environmentalists, who favor native fish and wild rivers over tamed trout streams. Members of the Moab, Utah-based environmental group Living Rivers have turned up at public meetings dressed as Colorado pikeminnows and razorback suckers, blasting the Bureau's plan as insufficient and arguing that the only way to recover the native fish is to remove both Navajo and Glen Canyon dams.


That will obviously not happen anytime soon. But many biologists agree that the Bureau's proposal seems to hold little hope for the native fish. Spring floods will help, but the low flows will lead to only "marginal improvements" in habitat for the pikeminnow and sucker, according to Marc Wethington, San Juan River biologist for New Mexico Game and Fish.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Mike Buntjer adds that the Bureau's plan will meet the minimum, rather than the optimal, habitat requirements of the fish.


Still, the Bureau has offered up a brutal - and paradoxical - choice: Either roll the dice on a modest recovery for native fish and destroy the trout fishery, or maintain the trout fishery to the detriment of the native fish. And the Endangered Species Act dictates that between native fish and introduced trout, the natives win out.


But the demise of the trout fishery may not be worth the price of modest native fish restoration - and it may not be necessary.


Michael Black of Taxpayers for the Animas River, a citizens' group that has fought the Animas-La Plata project, says if flows are managed judiciously - and if farmers and urbanites are willing to share - there is enough water in the San Juan for both the native fish and the trout. "The threat to the trout doesn't come from the endangered species, it comes from water development."


But the history surrounding the Animas-La Plata project has always favored humans, and, once again, people will get their water wishes granted before fish - native or introduced.


When I return to the Texas Hole late in the evening, I can still count 22 vehicles in the huge gravel lot. I tie on a #20 Sparkle Dun, walk to the river, and find 50 feet of the San Juan between two other fishermen. My very first cast, I hook and land one of the river's finicky brown trout. It may sound like I'm bragging, but this fish story ends on a melancholy note: This is the first - and maybe the last - trout I'll ever catch on the San Juan River.

Joshua Zaffos is a High Country News intern.

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