Santa Ana Sucker, Catostomus santaanae, Paul Barrett, USFWS
Santa Ana Sucker, Catostomus santaanae, Paul Barrett, USFWS

SAN BERNARDINO, CA, Aug. 22, 2016 –  Three conservation groups filed a notice of intent today to sue the cities of Colton and San Bernardino and their regional wastewater reclamation authority for illegally killing federally protected Santa Ana sucker fish. By halting water releases critical to maintaining surface flows of the Santa Ana River, the Rapid Infiltration and Extraction (RIX) treatment plant is stranding and killing threatened fish, violating the Endangered Species Act and driving the fish closer to extinction, according to the suit.

It’s outrageous that these cities are killing and injuring Santa Ana suckers without any attempt to comply with the Endangered Species Act,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has been working to protect the rare fish for more than a decade. “So once again we’re having to take legal action to protect these fish from going extinct in their namesake river.”

Since at least 2014, more than 100 Santa Ana sucker deaths have been documented in three instances when the Colton/San Bernardino Regional Tertiary Treatment and Water Reclamation Authority halted water releases into the river. Each shutdown caused the Santa Ana River to go dry, stranding and killing the endangered fish as well as other native fish. In addition, during the shutdowns more than 1,200 Santa Ana sucker fish have been salvaged in buckets, then re-released once the water starts flowing, likely causing harm to the surviving fish. Records show that at least 60 shutdowns have occurred since 2014, but very few were monitored to document what happened to the fish.

“The sucker fish is struggling to survive in the Santa Ana River as it is. Repeatedly shutting off the water that the fish rely on without even seeking the necessary federal permits is decimating this population and making recovery impossible,” said Kim Floyd, conservation chair for the San Gorgonio Sierra Club.

“We are stepping in to enforce the Endangered Species Act because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the federal agency tasked with protecting our public-trust resources — has so far refused to act to protect the Santa Ana sucker,” said Drew Feldmann, conservation chair for the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society.

The Santa Ana sucker is a small, olive-gray fish found in clear, cool, rocky pools of creeks, as well as gravelly bottoms of permanent streams with slight to swift currents. Many of these streams are naturally subject to severe seasonal flooding, which can decimate resident fish populations. Yet the Santa Ana sucker possesses adaptations that enable it to repopulate its birth streams rapidly after such unpredictable events. The fish primarily eats algae, which it searches out with the large lips that gave it its common name. The species was well distributed throughout the Los Angeles, San Gabriel and San Bernardino rivers historically, but is now relegated to only a few stream stretches.