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The infrastructure law includes $200 million to help native fish


The bipartisan infrastructure law isn't just building projects for people - $200 million have been set aside to reopen spawning grounds for native fish to help them better weather climate change. The Mountain West News Bureau's Kaleb Roedel reports.


KALEB ROEDEL, BYLINE: At an overlook near the Truckee River in Nevada, nearly a hundred people recently gathered for a groundbreaking ceremony for a project designed to help native fish get past the Numana Dam. As a kid, James Phoenix fished this river, catching cui-ui, a type of sucker that is only found here.

JAMES PHOENIX: Bringing them to shore and then cutting and fileting them - that was what my dad had taught me. And I got to experience that's how he was taught when he was young.

ROEDEL: Now Phoenix is chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. They refer to themselves as Cui-ui Tucutta in their native language, which means the cui-ui eaters. But tribal members stopped catching them back in the 1980s as the fish population plummeted. A big reason is the dam Phoenix is overlooking today.


ROEDEL: Built more than 100 years ago to divert river water to the reservation for farming and ranching, it's been a barrier for migration of the endangered cui-ui and threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout, another fish crucial to the tribe. Phoenix says the previous tribal council discussed removing or modifying the dam but kept running into the same hurdle.

PHOENIX: A lot of funds weren't available.

ROEDEL: Now there are. The tribe is getting more than $8 million from the bipartisan infrastructure law to build a large underwater ramp stretching from bank to bank, so fish can swim up and over the dam. Reopening 65 miles of river for fish migration will help preserve the tribe's culture, Phoenix says, and more.

PHOENIX: It's important to our economics. You know, we rely on tourism and fishing. So we get a lot of anglers that are coming in seasonally, so it's really big for us.

ROEDEL: Siva Sundaresan with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says restoring spawning habitat comes at a crucial time for native fish.

SIVA SUNDARESAN: As climate changes in places, we're seeing changes in snowpack, changes in the timing of when you have snowmelt, changing water temperatures. All of that is definitely affecting fish populations, fish habitat.

ROEDEL: The project here on the Numana Dam north of Reno is one of dozens nationwide funded by the infrastructure law that include helping to recover Yellowstone and Rio Grande cutthroat in Idaho and New Mexico, Bear River cutthroat in Wyoming and Utah and flannelmouth sucker in Utah, among others.

SUNDARESAN: The more I think we can restore these ecosystems, allow fish to migrate up and down the streams, have habitat where they can find refuge when, you know, water temperatures rise, the better we will be at protecting and restoring, conserving these fish populations.

ROEDEL: Modifying the dam here will allow up to 600,000 cui-ui to swim over the diversion dam to new spawning grounds.

LISA HEKI: Historically, they move in large numbers at the same time, and they back up behind this current design.

ROEDEL: Lisa Heki is a Reno-based project leader with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

HEKI: Now, with this gradient structure downstream, it's designed specifically for cui-ui swimming capacity and speed.

ROEDEL: Tribal Chairman James Phoenix says the Pyramid Lake Paiutes are excited to finally see shovels break ground on a decadeslong effort to recover their native fish.

PHOENIX: It's historical. It's big for us, and it's part of our existence. You know, it signifies us as Numu people here at the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

ROEDEL: He's looking forward to the day when the cui-ui population is big enough for tribal members to catch, filet and eat them once again. For NPR News, I'm Kaleb Roedel in Reno.


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Kaleb Roedel
Kaleb M. Roedel is an award-winning journalist of the Northern Nevada Business Weekly. At the NNBW, Kaleb covers topics that impact all businesses, big and small, across the greater Northern Nevada and Lake Tahoe regions, including economic trends, workforce development, innovation and sustainability, among others.