History

Chapter 10: Devils Hole

Another beautiful monument to impracticality, besides Marta Becket, is Devils Hole, at Ash Meadows.

About a half million years ago, great caverns formed in the Spring Mountains, next to Ash Meadows. Warm groundwater filled the caverns, and about 60,000 years ago a small hole opened up and exposed the groundwater to the sun and fresh air. Human beans have recently named it Devils Hole.

Devils Hole is a cave that branches into the caverns at least 430 feet deep. But nobody knows how much deeper it goes, because the bottom of the caverns has never been mapped.

Soon after Devils Hole opened up, one of the world’s rarest fish evolved. It’s called the Devils Hole pupfish. The water of Devils Hole remains very warm the year round, at 92 degrees Fahrenheit. And the water is low on oxygen. But somehow, this strange fish managed to evolve and adapt under such extreme conditions.

The Devils Hole Pupfish, feeding off algae. This is a public domain photo, as I was not allowed to dive into Devils Hole and snap a photo, myself.

Devils Hole is the only place on Earth that this species of pupfish can be found. The fish is blue in color, and about 1.2 inches in length. Its population fluctuates between 100 and 500 little fishies, depending on the seasonal availability of algae, which it eats, and the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water.

In 1952, President Harry Truman designated and declared 40 acres of land that surround Devils Hole and its pupfish, to be part of the nearby Death Valley National Monument (now a national park). It can feel strange standing there, knowing that you are in the same national park whose main boundary lies 10 crow’s flight miles away.

Devils Hole is a 5-minute walk from this trailhead. It’s contained in a fenced-off area at the base of the mountain, to the left.

In 1967, the Devils Hole pupfish was included on the very first official listing of endangered species. And what was endangering this fish was declining water levels. This pupfish lives just above a shallow rock shelf near the cave entrance. And it must have this shallow area, for feeding and spawning. This is where the sun shines, and where the algae grows.

But nearby wells were dropping the underground water levels, putting it in danger of losing the shallow rock shelf it needs. The pupfish cannot survive in the deep, dark recesses of the caverns. If levels were to drop so low that it’s forced down to those depths, it will die off and go extinct.

So a fight began, between farmers and others with large wells, who wanted to keep pumping massive quantities of water out of the ground, and the pupfish lovers, who love pupfish. The Justice Department took the side of the pupfish lovers, and filed a complaint, and in 1976 the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

And the high court ruled in favor of the pupfish. Now, when water levels decline, all groundwater pumping in the Amargosa Valley must cease and cannot resume until the water has risen enough to satisfy this poor, defenseless piscine.

Yeah, it’s impractical. And none of us will probably ever see a Devils Hole pupfish in our entire lives. Not even those few of us who visit Devils Hole, since it must be viewed from a high platform, far above the water’s surface. This height makes it nearly impossible to detect their tiny swimming bodies. I know. I was there, and I sure couldn’t spot them. I probably should have brought binoculars.

The viewing platform, high above Devils Hole, prevents tourists from throwing stuff into the water, or otherwise disturbing the fish. To get a good photo of Devils Hole, I had to position my camera lens as best I could between the wire slats. I think the solar panels power the equipment used, for monitoring the water in Devils Hole, and for powering a nearby weather station.

And yet somehow it feels reassuring to me that we still have this rare fish. I find it fascinating that this unique species is still swimming around in that tiny hole in the ground, as it’s swam for the past 60,000 years.

The government spends a lot of money monitoring the water level and water quality of Devils Hole, in order to keep the pupfish alive. It’s a damned impractical way to spend our tax dollars. And yet I’m glad it’s being done. I hope the pupfish continues to survive in Devils Hole for many more generations to come.

Devils Hole. This is the best zoom shot I could get of the rocky shelf where the pupfish lives and eats. If you strain hard, you can imagine that you’re actually seeing the teeny-tiny little pupfish. The equipment at the right measures water level and water quality.

This is the latest installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 11: For Peat’s Sake . Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

26 replies »

  1. The government wastes money in a lot of impractical ways but like you, I like this way! The fish are pretty and like Dr. Seuss said , “a person is a person, no matter how small!” Remember Horton hears a Who! The pupfish deserves to be able to swim around even if we never see it. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. The pupfish may be the excuse, but seems to me keeping the water levels at “surviving” is good for the humans too. Soon after the pupfish are dead won’t be long before the water is gone for humans too.

    Liked by 2 people

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