The Colorado River is dying. Can his aquatic dinosaurs be saved?

To keep the turbines in Glen Canyon running, Lake Powell needs more water. But without major usage restrictions, the obvious solution to filling the reservoir is to steal the water from elsewhere in the system. The Flaming Gorge reservoir on the Green River, which also happens to be the habitat for the hatchery-raised Razorback suckers, is one of the few reservoirs in the basin that is anywhere near full, making it a mature target for avoiding state agencies want other, painful cuts in water consumption.

The Bureau of Reclamation announced earlier this year that it would release 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge to try to stabilize the reservoirs downstream. In the short term, Breen says, these releases should be good for the endangered fish because they’re timed to benefit the razorback sucker’s reproductive cycle. But ultimately it robs Peter to pay Paul. The Green River’s water flows have already dropped 20 percent since 2000, and the Colorado River Basin has been oversubscribed for decades, with states claiming rights to more water than remains in the river. Its main reservoirs have been drained as winter snow cover has decreased. It was a record 107 degrees Fahrenheit in Salt Lake City this week.

“The system is nearing a tipping point, and without action we cannot protect the system and the millions of Americans who depend on this vital resource,” said M. Camille Calimlim Touton, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, during a news conference at the August . “Protecting the system means protecting the people of the American West.”

Meanwhile, other, non-native fish are the biggest threat to Colorado’s endangered fish. Only 12 fish are native to the Upper Colorado River Basin, Breen says. But now more than 50 species compete in the rivers. Introduced on purpose to encourage sport fishing, many are highly predatory in a way that the Razorback and others did not evolve to survive.

“Warmer, lower currents also benefit invasive fish species like smallmouth bass, exacerbating the problems facing those species,” a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service told me in an email. “These non-native smallmouth bass spawn and hatch in the summer, as does Colorado pike mint, and grow much faster than native fish.”

The recovery program spends more than $2 million a year to eliminate the non-native fish from the Green River and elsewhere in the system — a move that’s not always popular with local anglers who enjoy fishing for bass. “For the record, I love smallmouth bass,” says Breen. “I grew up smallmouth bass fishing in the Midwest. But there they should be. Bass are very predatory and they shouldn’t be in this river.”

Smallmouth bass invasion had been somewhat contained in the upper Colorado watershed, but this summer, as the river has dried up, the reservoir in Lake Powell is allowing warm water to flow through the Glen Canyon Dam, and with it the smallmouth bass. Much to the dismay of conservationists and wildlife managers, the bass are now beginning to gain a foothold in the Grand Canyon, the last pristine habitat for the humpback whale chub, another native Colorado River fish whose status was downgraded from vulnerable by the Fish and Wildlife Service was too threatened. The arrival of the bass could undo all of these advances.

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