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Rio Grande Levee Lawsuit Expanded to Protect Imperiled Cuckoo

Corps' plan threatens to destroy habitat to cut costs

Santa Fe, N.M.—WildEarth Guardians today amended its lawsuit targeting a mammoth, river-choking levee project under construction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in central New Mexico with new claims to protect the yellow-billed cuckoo and its habitat along the Rio Grande.

Earlier this year, the group filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Corps seeking to stop the construction of 43 miles of engineered levees along the Rio Grande (from the San Acacia Diversion Dam to Elephant Butte Reservoir) to prevent destruction of the river ecosystem and the loss of hundreds of acres of key habitat for the Rio Grande silvery minnow and Southwestern willow flycatcher.

“The Rio Grande is an oasis in the desert that is critical to the survival of birds, fish and wildlife as well as the local economy,” said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “Pushing through a traditional flood control project in the 21st century without evaluating more environmentally sound ways to provide the same benefits is simply irresponsible.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the cuckoo as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act on October 3, 2014 and proposed critical habitat that includes the section of the Rio Grande from Cochiti Dam to Elephant Butte Reservoir. The Corps, however, never opened discussions with the Service regarding the impacts of the project on the cuckoo and its critical habitat despite the clear mandate of the Endangered Species Act.

The group amended its original lawsuit to compel the Corps to evaluate the impacts of the project on the yellow-billed cuckoo and ensure that the cuckoo is not harmed by the permanent habitat destruction resulting from the project.  

Guardians also informed the Corps that it will seek an order from the court to enjoin any deposition of earthen material into an environmentally critical region called the Tiffany Basin because such activity will permanently alter key flycatcher and cuckoo habitat.

The Corps plans to deposit approximately 1.6 million cubic yards (the equivalent of 800,000 full sized pick up trucks) of earthen material from existing levees into the Tiffany Basin, which is designated critical habitat of the flycatcher and proposed habitat of the cuckoo. The excavated material will cover 300 acres of the Tiffany Basin at a depth of 6.5 feet deep, essentially converting riparian habitat of the birds to upland habitat and destroying its value to the species.

“The Corps’ plan to dump a massive amount of spoil in protected critical habitat of imperiled birds is not necessary to protect the safety and health of the local communities,” said Pelz. “It is this type of a short-cut taken by the Corps to lower the cost of the project at the expense of the river that we believe needs reconsideration. A proper environmental analysis by the Corps, as required by environmental laws, could yield environmentally sound alternatives that do not compromise such an important bosque restoration site.”

This 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.


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