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The Imperial Irrigation District planned to start a conservation program in April to reduce water usage from the Colorado River, which supplies water to farmers growing the nation’s winter vegetables. However, plans were delayed to at least June to ensure that the endangered desert pupfish, which resides in irrigation drains, and other species are protected. The district’s proposal to pay farmers to temporarily stop watering feed crops raised concerns about potential impacts on the desert pupfish and migratory birds that frequent the Salton Sea.

Protecting the desert pupfish, listed as endangered since 1986, has been a challenge facing the Colorado River, which provides water to millions of people in seven U.S. states, parts of Mexico, and Native American tribes. The river has been over-tapped and is facing prolonged drought exacerbated by recent years. Western states are negotiating a new long-term use plan to stabilize the river, with California agreeing to give up significant amounts of water from the Imperial Irrigation District to meet water conservation goals.

The Imperial district, the largest user of Colorado River water, planned a summer idling program to allow farmers to turn off water for feed crops for 60 days, but concerns were raised about potential harm to the desert pupfish and migratory birds. The district is working with state and federal officials to establish a monitoring program to ensure the fish is not further threatened. The desert pupfish is a resilient species that can survive in extreme conditions such as low oxygen levels, high salinity, and temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It feeds on invertebrates and serves as a food source for birds in the Salton Sea ecosystem.

The desert pupfish is a key part of the Salton Sea ecosystem and plays a role in controlling biting flies and serving as prey for birds. In the summer, creeks that flow into the Salton Sea may dry out, risking the fish being stranded, so they are moved to special ponds for protection. California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife declined to discuss the water conservation plan but expressed support for reducing water use on the Colorado River. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates major dams in the Colorado River system, did not comment.

Environmentalists emphasize that while many species rely on the Colorado River, decisions about water usage often prioritize human needs over wildlife conservation. There are complex challenges associated with balancing water use for agricultural purposes with protecting endangered species like the desert pupfish. The conflicting interests of various stakeholders require careful consideration and collaboration to find solutions that benefit both people and wildlife. Despite the challenges, efforts are being made to address the impacts of water conservation on the desert pupfish and other species in the Colorado River ecosystem.

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