By Thomas Garcia
QCS Senior Writer
The New Mexico Game and Fish Department was aware of a controlled underwater blast Friday for the Ute Water Project that resulted in over 900 fish being killed at Ute Lake Reservoir.
The total number of dead fish recovered after the Aug. 16 blast at Ute Lake is 941, including 928 gizzard shad, 7 carp and 6 blue gill said Rachel Shockley, NMDGF spokesperson.
The official blast report will not be available for another week. Ute Water Project officials do not believe that additional underwater blasting will be required, Paul Van Gulick, project manager, said.
Shockley said Game and Fish has been working closely with the contractors of the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority on the blast.
Shockley said department officials were made aware of the authority’s plans to conduct an underwater blast at Ute Lake. She said the blasting was to be done in such a small area of the lake the department felt the damage would be negligible and not affect the entire lake.
“A fish is a fish, it does not matter if it is a protected game species or not, it is still very much a part of the ecosystem of Ute Lake which makes it a viable fishery habitat,” said T.J. Smith, president of the Logan -Ute Lake Chamber of Commerce.
Smith said on Friday no one could provide him with an estimate on the number of fish killed. He said he took a boat out onto the lake after the blast and said dead fish “were everywhere. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them.”
Smith said the shad is a source of food for the game species at Ute Lake and that the killing of a large number of the food source species will have an impact on the lake’s ecosystem.
Just two days prior to the underwater blast, Game and Fish officials along with volunteers from New Mexico B.A.S.S. Nation and Ruf-Nec Tackle in Logan helped released black bass, largemouth and smallmouth to stock Ute Lake.
The stocking was part of the department’s long-term commitment to bass fishing and its fans, and the department is now growing largemouth bass at its Rock Lake hatchery in Santa Rosa. Almost 300,000 bass were stocked in warm water reservoirs across the state, including Ute, Conchas, Navajo, Elephant Butte, and small urban fisheries.
Van Gulick said a fish biologist who was subcontracted by the project’s firm was on site on Friday to monitor the blast. He said one of the biologists’ tasks under the contract was to take charge of the killed fish that were “gathered up and catalogued.”
Gayla Brumfield, chair of the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority board, said the blast was the only underwater explosion planned by contractors. She said it had been planned and public announcements were issued weeks ago.
Brumfield said contractors plan to blast two more times on land before finishing the authority’s intake structure.
Smith said he saw two boats carrying people wearing safety vests marked with ASI, the name of one of the construction contractors, on the lake netting killed fish from the water.
Shockley said members of the contracting company were collecting the dead fish as part of an agreement they had with the department. She said the contractor was to collect the fish and report back to Game and Fish how many had been killed.
Thomas Hnasko, the attorney representing the Village of Logan in federal and state litigation against the Ute Lake Project, said the fish kill directly contradicts statements made in the ENMWUA’s federal court testimony in which, he said, counsel for the water utility had said no fish would be killed.
“This is very unfortunate,” Hnasko said. Especially, he said, since ENMWUA counsel had also said in court there would be “no environmental impact at all” from the project.
“This is a significant environmental effect,” he said.
The ENMWUA is building an intake structure on Ute Lake’s north shore as part of a pipeline project that is designed to carry water eventually from Ute Lake to Curry and Roosevelt counties. The Village of Logan has filed suit to prevent the project from continuing.
Louis Rose, who represented the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority in federal court, said he does not remember making “any affirmative statement that there would be no fish killed” as a result of the project in federal court. He said he might have made a reference to no fish killed, but only as a reflection of Game and Fish’s understanding of some terms of the agreement between the contractors and the department.
Van Gulick said Friday’s underwater blast was designed to create a vertical wall and horizontal shelf that would anchor valves and hardware to control water flow to the intake.