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The Southwest Utah Bureau is based in the St. George area, and the reporting focuses on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues, faith and spirituality and other topics of relevance to Utahns.

Protecting natural Colorado River flows is critical for native fish, study finds

Mountain whitefish
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Native Colorado River fish aren’t known for their economic or sport value, but they’re important in talking about managing the water, according to Utah State University professor Phaedra Budy.

Native Colorado River Basin fish need water to survive, which isn’t groundbreaking news, but recent research finds that natural stream flows are also critical for the survival of these species.

The White River runs through eastern Utah and is a Green River tributary in the Colorado River system. It’s also one of the few remaining streams with natural flows, according to Phaedra Budy, a professor in the Department of Watershed Sciences at Utah State University.

“The White River does have a spring flood, still, it does have an incredible amount of complex habitat and as a result, it has a very robust and healthy native fishery,” she said.

Budy said the native fish in the Green and Colorado Rivers are “non-charismatic,” meaning they don’t have high economic or sport value. For those reasons and others, the fish can often be left out of conversations around management of the region’s water. But she said it’s important for them to be included.

“These fishes are endemic, which means that they're found nowhere else on Earth,” Budy said. “If we lose them, we lose them forever.”

Federal fish recovery programs aren’t allowed to hinder water development, according to Casey Pennock, a research scientist in the Department of Watershed Sciences at USU. He said the efforts being made, like restocking native fish, aren’t leading to long-term improvements for the species.

“It's kind of a catch-22,” he said. “Fish need water, yet we can't conserve water for them in some instances.”

To maintain and restore healthy habitats, there needs to be more conservation and further water development along some of these rivers needs to stop, Pennock said.

“If we want to maintain and have these natural river systems, which are a great treasure to the Western states and the endemic fishes that occur nowhere else,” he said, “then as a society, we're going to have to prioritize those a little bit more than having green lawns and growing certain crops in the desert.”

Pennock said it’s a challenge to balance human interests of water in the West, but the focus should be protecting the White River and other underdeveloped streams like it. He said then people can work on restoring flows for depleted rivers.

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