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Suit Filed to Ensure Rio Grande’s Right to Roam

February 24, 2015
Jen Pelz 303-884-2702
In This Release
Rivers   Rio Grande silvery minnow, Southwestern willow flycatcher
SANTA FE, N.M.—WildEarth Guardians filed suit today in federal court challenging a massive federal engineering project that threatens the health of the Rio Grande ecosystem in central New Mexico and will alter hundreds of acres of key habitat of the Rio Grande silvery minnow, Southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

The lawsuit targets the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ project to construct 43 miles of engineered levees along the river—from the San Acacia Diversion Dam (north of Socorro) south to Elephant Butte Reservoir—despite the significant impacts to the environment and threat to the survival and recovery of endangered species.

“The iconic Rio Grande deserves at least a few places where it can freely roam across its vast floodplain to restore the Bosque and support imperiled fish and wildlife,” said Jen Pelz the Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “This part of the Rio Grande, which includes the crown jewel that is Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, provides the perfect opportunity for the Corps to explore non-structural flood control options that will address flood concerns as well as protect the environment.”

The Corps secured funding and started construction on the first two phases of the project earlier this year, which will provide levees along about six miles of the river to protect the town of Socorro. Guardians does not seek to stop this portion of the project, but believes the Corps should implore non-structural means to address any flood concerns on the remaining 37 miles of the project area where only agricultural infrastructure and the low flow conveyance channel—an artificial channel that serves to drain the river and adjacent irrigated acreage—face the threat of flooding.

“The Corps’ approach is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” added Pelz. “Less invasive means could accomplish the objective of flood control, while still embracing the potential for restoration along this crown jewel of the Rio Grande.”

The group’s suit also contests the veracity of the environmental review processes conducted by the Corps and the approval it obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.The group points to the 130-page Biological Opinion that detailed the negative impacts of the project on silvery minnow and willow flycatcher, yet somehow concludes that this project would not threaten the survival or recovery of the two species.

Finally, Guardians also provided notice to the Corps today that it believes the project will affect the yellow-billed cuckoo. The Service listed the cuckoo as threatened on October 3, 2014 and proposed critical habitat that includes the Rio Grande from Cochiti dam to Elephant Butte Reservoir. The letter warns the Corps that if the agency does not reopen talks with the Service to ensure that the levee project does not harm the newly listed yellow-billed cuckoo, that the group will initiate a lawsuit to compel action by the Corps. The Corps has 60-days under the ESA to remedy these violations of the law.

In-house lawyer, Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, represents the organization in the litigation. This lawsuit is the latest action in WildEarth Guardians’ campaign to protect and restore the Rio Grande, America’s third longest and one of its most iconic rivers.