River barrier erected to protect endangered fish

WASHINGTON COUNTY – A new and improved seven-foot wall spans the Virgin River along the Utah and Arizona border. It’s the latest in efforts to protect local endangered fish in Washington County.

The concrete barrier is designed to keep invasive fish out of the Utah section of the Virgin River, specifically the red shiner. The red shiner was introduced into the area by fisherman several decades ago and is a threat to the endangered woundfin minnow. The Washington County Water Conservancy District spent close to $400,000 to improve the structure.

“The goal is to save the woundfin minnow going downstream, all the way through its habitat in the Virgin River,” WCWCD Associate General Manager Barbara Hjelle said. “In order to do that, we have to stop that upstream migration of the red shiner.”

Virgin River Project Coordinator Steve Meisner said the wall will work in connection to other barriers and diversions along the river, to give biologists a chance to focus their ongoing efforts at rehabilitating the woundfin population, thus restoring balance in the river.

“If we don’t get rid of red shiner, we’re not going to have our native species,” Meisner said. “They do not exist together.”

Major efforts over the past 10 years have completely eliminated the red shiner, at least from the Utah section of the river. Meisner saidd barriers like this will go far in keeping that fish out and protecting the fragile ecosystem that exists along the Virgin River.

“This whole area in Washington County is kind of the convergence of different geographical regions,” Meisner said. You’ve got The Great Basin, The Colorado Plateau, The Mojave Desert. All are very close to Washington County.

The wall is actually an upgrade to one that’s spanned the river since the 1980s. The upgrades are meant to improve the function, while also keeping the minnow in from being washed downstream.

“We’ve raised the structure and improved it in a variety of ways and now we believe this will be a very effective barrier, “ Hjelle said.

Even with the barrier, the struggle to protect endangered fish goes on and is one both the water district and the Virgin River Project are constantly working on.

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