An environmental group filed a formal notice to sue to the U.S. government over claims that a proposed water pipeline in southern Utah could threaten a fish species subject to protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The Pine Valley Water Supply Project, which managers in Iron County say is needed in the fast-growing Cedar City area, threatens the habitat of the least chub, a small minnow found only in Utah, according to representatives with the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Tucson.
The Center plans to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect the fish under the Endangered Species Act.
“The least chub is in the crosshairs of the Pine Valley Water Supply Project," said Krista Kemppinen, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the Center. “If this desperately imperiled fish doesn’t get federal protections, the repercussions could be catastrophic.”
The small fish, which is less than three inches long, once lived in rivers, marshes and ponds across Utah's Bonneville Basin, but survives in only seven wild populations, having lost much of its habitat to human development and predation from non-native species. It was placed on a "candidate list" for ESA protections in 2010.
The Center filed a petition in 2021 asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to explain how it would protect the species, especially with the Pine Valley project potentially impacting as much as half of the existing population. A draft filing of the project's potential environmental impacts suggested it could dry up some of the springs and habitat the fish needs to survive.
The agency didn't respond by a September deadline, prompting the Center to move forward with its legal action.
Water managers say the 66-mile pipeline project would send water that Iron County already owns from rural parts of Beaver County to the growing population in and around Cedar City. Water users in Iron County are already running low on water, having overdrawn their underground aquifer.
The county has eyed the Pine Valley project as the solution, and already owns the rights to more than 26,000 acre-feet of water between the Pine and Wah Wah valleys. That amount of water could roughly double the amount of water currently available, which proponents say could help the Cedar City area to keep up with population growth that has surged in recent years to as much as a 6.2% increase in 2021. State demographers say the county could double in size to some 100,000 population by 2065.
The project has been controversial with many locals, with concerns about the potential costs and protests from Beaver County and from some members of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, which has had rights to water in some of the areas identified in the pipeline plans. Some Iron County residents started a petition opposing the project.
Iron County has searched for years to find new sources of water, increasing its conservation efforts, implementing reuse plans and improving local infrastructure, but managers have long contended that those types of efforts to save water won't be enough.
The county was once part of plans for the Lake Powell Pipeline, a larger and also controversial project that would pipe water out of Lake Powell and send it to southwestern Utah, but the county backed out of that project a decade ago over cost concerns and amid hopes an alternative could be found.
This article originally appeared on St. George Spectrum & Daily News: Lawsuit filed over threat to fish in proposed water pipeline in Utah