July 4, 2007

Plucky pupfish survive Salton Sea pumps

Scientists and regulators are studying whether Salton Sea test ponds adopted by pupfish must be maintained.

The Press-Enterprise

A tiny, endangered fish discovered thriving in test ponds near the Salton Sea may be good news for the species but could be bad news for those who donated property for a scientific experiment.

Federal scientists last year created the shallow ponds dotted with small islands to see if they would attract any of the 400 bird species that frequent the Salton Sea, which is on the verge of an ecological collapse.

The sea, which straddles Riverside and Imperial counties, will shrink significantly beginning in 2017 as a result of farm water that drains into the lake being diverted to San Diego taps.

The test ponds will help determine whether the lake can remain a key stopover for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway. If so, larger versions of the ponds would be carved into the seabed as the shoreline recedes.

Recently, rare pupfish thought only to live in the sea and a couple of tributaries were found in large numbers in the test ponds, southeast of the sea near Niland. The discovery means the local irrigation district, which owns the land, is concerned that it may be required to maintain the newly created habitat after the three-year pilot program ends.

Water is continuously pumped from the sea and a nearby river and catapulted through a 1.5-mile pipeline to maintain the test ponds. Scientists say the 2-inch fish somehow survived the trip even though the pump is designed to keep them out.

"How they made that wild ride ... that's probably the best E-ticket ride anyone could have," said Douglas Barnum, the U.S. Geological Survey scientist in charge of the pilot project.

The similar-size Delta smelt, also an imperiled fish, has not been so fortunate. Much larger pumps on the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta that supply drinking water to the Inland area were turned off recently because they were chewing up the smelt.

An Unexpected Discovery

An eyeball estimate showed more than 1,000 pupfish in three of the four 25-acre test ponds, Barnum said. A series of surveys would be needed to find out how many juvenile fish actually make it into adulthood.

While the discovery could lead to boosting the population of an endangered species, it raises questions for the Imperial Irrigation District, the water agency that let the USGS use its land for the test ponds, free of charge.

"I don't want to be so defiant as to say their experiment went awry so it's their problem to fix, but I do want to sort of underscore the notion that I.I.D. was simply being a good partner," said Kevin Kelley, a district spokesman.

"This unexpected and unintended development is a concern to us for precisely the reason ... that it creates an open question as to how we're going to mitigate this problem."

Any animal protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and the similar state law could require measures to protect the species from slipping further toward extinction. The Delta smelt case is one example.

In the Inland region, development has been curtailed in Colton on land where the endangered Delhi Sands flower-loving fly ekes out an existence.

Kelley said he is unsure if regulatory agencies will require the district to continuously fill the ponds with water, a rare commodity in the hot desert, once the pilot project is completed.
He said the district's board meets Tuesday and will discuss the issue.

Greg Hurner, senior adviser to California Fish and Game Director Ryan Broddrick, said there's no easy answer.

The situation is complicated, he said, because it involves several agencies and possible regulatory issues. In addition, the Salton Sea is the subject of a proposed $8.9 billion restoration plan by the state that includes efforts to help the pupfish, Hurner said.

"It's not like someone built a pond on their property and the red-legged frog showed up," Hurner said, of that threatened amphibian.

Puppylike Fish

Hurner said in the short term, the state would require the USGS to get a so-called take permit to do any scientific studies or make any changes to the ponds. Requirements for the long-term management of the ponds, possibly by the water district, would depend on a number of factors.
"We'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it," he said.

The pupfish were named for their puppy-like behavior in which they aggressively dart at intruders and nip at their tails.

The pupfish were in the ponds for about a month before the researchers, who wade through the ponds searching for bird nests, began thinking they were more than just an average fish.

USGS fisheries biologist Michael Saiki positively identified the pupfish. The fish have tan-to-olive bodies, but the males turn bright blue with yellow or orange fins and tail during breeding season.

In a statement, Saiki said the majority of pupfish in the ponds are juveniles, suggesting that breeding was taking place there.

Barnum said the discovery provides a unique opportunity to determine how salinity, temperature and predators affect the rare creatures.

Their decline is blamed on the introduction of exotic fish species, including tilapia, and habitat degradation due to water diversion and invasive plants.