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Biologists Set To Rescue Fish From Drying Texas Rivers

A dead fish lays near sailboats left high and dry at Benbrook Lake in Benbrook, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 16.
LM Otero
A dead fish lays near sailboats left high and dry at Benbrook Lake in Benbrook, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 16.

This news story from the Associated Press gives you an idea of just how bad drought conditions are in Texas:

Wildlife biologists on Friday will evacuate two species of minnows from the shrinking waters of a West Texas river in the first of what could be several rescue operations involving fish affected by the state's worst drought in decades.

Smalleye shiners and sharpnose shiners, the species being collected from the Brazos River about 175 miles northwest of Fort Worth, will be taken to the state's fish hatchery near Possum Kingdom Lake. When drought conditions abate, the minnows will be returned to the river.

Scorching conditions have left the water hot, muddy and salty in the river's Clear, Double Mountain and Salt forks. Because of the drought, the water levels were so low this year that the minnows — candidates to be listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act — didn't have the 100 miles of river needed to reproduce.

Their life span is just two years, so scientists are scrambling to save the two species, which wildlife officials say are the most abundant fish in the upper Brazos and are found nowhere else in the world.

The Texas Parks & Wildlife has been talking about this for months, now. Back in July, the department put out a long, explanatory press releaseon what's happening to wildlife as the drought deepens. One of the important things they note is that when water doesn't fall from the sky, animals turn to spring-fed ponds, or water that comes from the earth:

"If this goes on much longer we're going to have some dry springs, without a doubt," said Chad Norris, a TPWD water resource scientist who's spent the last few years studying the status of springs across the state, including many on private ranches.

"One big problem is impacts to endemic and rare species, many of which are isolated to these small springs and are found nowhere else. We might not lose an entire species, but we could lose local populations that could push them toward extinction."

Here's another issue: Humans. According to TPWD, animals have survived long droughts in the past, but our consumption of water is making droughts more severe. One more worrying point from TPWD: Water planners base restrictions and the such on the "drought of record." So far that happened in the '50s in Texas.

"But we know, based on tree ring data, Texas has weathered 'mega-droughts' worse than the drought of the 1950s. Some weather experts are wondering if our current drought could be the 'new normal,'" said Cindy Loeffler, TPWD's top water resource expert.

We'll leave you with a counter point to all this. As NPR reported earlier this week, in Vermont, after Irene drenched the state, biologists are facing the aftermath of too much water. The floods have pushed human waste into the habitats of rare trout and the rain "triggered vast landslides that reshaped some of the wildest mountain landscapes in the East, washing away ponds and shifting rivers into new channels."

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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