Last week, an unassuming little silver fish found only in the Clear Lake watershed of Northern California was designated as threatened under the state’s Endangered Species Act. That likely means that this member of the minnow family, which grows to just seven inches long at its largest, could become the latest in a series of small aquatic creatures that have changed environmental policy and forced change in the way we manage water resources.
The Clear Lake hitch, its advocates have been arguing for years, has been driven to the brink of elimination by the destruction of its native habitat as the region has been developed for residential and agricultural use. Once so abundant that it clogged the waterways surrounding the lake during its annual spawning run, the hitch is now sadly depleted. Fewer than a thousand of the fish spawned in 2013, and they have vanished entirely from many of the lake’s tributaries.
The streams where the hitch once swam in such numbers that they were a major food source for the indigenous Pomo people have been blocked by construction, polluted by runoff and pumped dry. Some non-native species, including the largemouth bass that local sport fishers love, have preyed on the hitch, while others have supplanted it in the food chain. The ongoing drought has brought matters to a crisis.
“Hitch can no longer reach the majority of former spawning areas,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which lobbied for the threatened listing along with three tribes of Pomo Indians. “[They] are forced to spawn opportunistically in ditches and wet meadows during high flows. Hitch reproduction has become sensitive to very localized events; a toxic spill or water-use issues of limited size could result in spawning failure for the entire population.”
Measures to save the hitch include removing barriers to their migration. The fish’s threatened status could also force the restoration of water flow to spawning streams. That has some farmers in the region — where walnuts, grapes and pears are significant cash crops — worried. “There are some very deep concerns,” one local official told the Press Democrat of Santa Rosa.
Those concerns — about how the way the legal system values the Clear Lake hitch as a functioning part of the overall ecosystem — are well-placed. Since the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, there have been several cases in which fish and other creatures even smaller in size than the hitch have delayed or thwarted the plans of developers and government agencies in the exploitation of water resources around the country.
The Snail Darter
This obscure fish became an emblem of the growing environmentalist movement — love it or hate it — starting in 1973, when its discovery in the Little Tennessee River led to prolonged litigation that delayed the construction of the Tellico Dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority. While the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the tiny snail darter, the dam was ultimately constructed when a legislative exemption from the Endangered Species Act was pushed through by Tennessee lawmakers. The snail darter lives on in other waterways nearby, where it was transplanted before the floodgates were closed on the Tellico Dam.
Devil’s Hole Pupfish
Fewer than a hundred of these little fish remain in an underground cavern on federal land in the Nevada desert, the evolutionary legacy of a time when the ocean covered this now desiccated part of the planet. Back in the 1970s, the Devil’s Hole pupfish — one of a handful of related species found in the Ash Meadows region of the state — was the focus of a lawsuit that pitted nearby private landowners who wanted to pump their groundwater against the government, which was concerned the pumping would kill off the species. The feds prevailed, but a number of other threats, only partially understood by scientists, have combined to bring the pupfish population to an unprecedented low in recent years. “Is it this fish’s time?” biologist Jim Deacon, who has been studying the pupfish since 1961, asked in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “That’s a question that we can’t ever definitively answer.”
Along with the Texas blind salamander and the Comal Springs riffle beetle, the fountain darter is one of several threatened or endangered species that since 1991 has profoundly influenced the way the state of Texas has managed the water in the Edwards Aquifer, one of the world’s largest underwater reserves. The ruling in a suit filed by the Sierra Club required San Antonio, which relies on Edwards water, to develop a 50-year water plan, and now the city is a global leader in water conservation and management. The suit also led to the creation of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, which has coordinated ongoing initiatives to protect the fragile ecosystem where the fountain darter and the Texas blind salamander are still hanging on.
Back in 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued recommendations limiting the diversion of water to farmers in Southern California in order to protect the environment of the threatened Delta smelt, a two-inch fish found only in the Sacramento River Delta. Earlier this year, with pressure on water resources increasing under the strain of the three-year drought that grips the state, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the smelt. “We recognize the enormous practical implications of this decision,” the judge wrote. “But the consequences were prescribed when Congress determined that ‘these species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.’” The legal battle over the water allotted to protect the smelt is ongoing.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including CityLab, Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.