Water Quality Board Urged to Provide More Water to Save Rare Sucker Fish

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

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. Sept. 15, 2016 – Three conservation groups filed a request with the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board today to amend the permit of the Rapid Infiltration and Extraction (RIX) facility to require adequate water flows in the Santa Ana River for the federally protected Santa Ana sucker fish. Since 2014 intermittent RIX shutdowns have halted water releases, stranding and killing the threatened fish. Operated under a joint powers authority by the city of San Bernardino and the city of Colton, the facility continues to violate the Endangered Species Act and drive the fish closer to extinction.

Since at least 2014, more than 100 Santa Ana sucker deaths have been documented in three instances when the RIX 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 rare native fish. 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. Requiring minimum surface water to be kept in the river will significantly reduce the harm to the fish by ensuring the surface flows upon which they rely,” said Kim Floyd, conservation chair for the San Gorgonio Sierra Club.

“We’re asking the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board to protect one of the key elements in the river — keeping water in it to protect this threatened fish,” said Drew Feldmann, conservation chair for the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society.

In late August the groups also sent a notice of intent to file a lawsuit to the cities of San Bernardino and Colton over the documented Santa Ana sucker mortalities — direct violations of the Endangered Species Act — from the RIX shutdowns.

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.

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