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Nation & World

Trio of salamanders might stop Northern California dam project

Shasta salamander
Shasta salamander

A trio of tiny salamander species could mean big trouble for federal officials spearheading a controversial $1.4 billion project to raise the Shasta Dam in northern California.

Two environmental organizations – the Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Protection Information Center – filed a federal lawsuit last month asking a judge to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether the Shasta salamanders should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The Center for Biological Diversity asked the wildlife service in 2012 to declare the amphibians either endangered or threatened, but the agency never made a decision, said Jenny Loda, an attorney for the environmental group.

Under federal law, U.S. Fish and Wildlife was required to make a determination on the salamanders within a year. After 6 years passed with no ruling, the center decided to sue.

The move was prompted, in part, by the federal government’s sudden momentum in efforts to raise the Shasta Dam nearly two stories, a project environmentalists say would destroy the salamanders’ habitat and put them at risk of extinction.

“Salamanders were historically harmed by the original creation of the dam,” Loda said. “The dam turned a pretty small lake into a very large lake and flooded their habitat. They can’t survive in the water like that.”

The battle to raise the dam’s height has been waged for decades. The current fight underscores simmering tensions between the state and federal government and highlights the momentum with the current administration.

Central Valley farmers are eager for the extra water it could mean for their crops, noting their growing operations are among the first to face restrictions during periods of drought or when water is redirected to save threatened and endangered species.

In 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation completed a federal environmental analysis of the raising the dam but shelved the project at the time because the bureau wanted local and state agencies to help shore up the cost.

After Donald Trump’s election as president, the project was injected with new life. Westlands Water District, which provides water to more than 1,000 square miles of farms in Fresno and Kings counties, offered to help fund it.

“Westlands was on a mission from God to finish this project,” said Ron Stork, a senior policy analyst with Friends of the River. “The Trump administration has let Reclamation staff and leaders express their inner reclamation after being repressed for so many years – ‘We can go out there and build some dams and who cares if it’s illegal.’”

The California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, passed in 1972, prohibits the 602-foot structure from getting any taller. But in an era of tension between Washington and California, the state’s objection to the project isn’t proving to be a deterrent for the Trump administration, which is moving forward with the plan.

Among the animals touted in the state’s long-running fight over water are the Delta smelt, which live in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and have been protected by the Endangered Species Act since 1993.

Farmers for years have blamed the tiny freshwater fish for destroying their crops and putting them out of business.

The lowly smelt even found itself in Trump’s cross-hairs during the presidential campaign when he repeated the claim that the government was taking farmers’ water supply and “shoving it out to sea … to protect a certain kind of 3-inch fish.”

The smelt’s population has been falling for decades as huge volumes of freshwater are diverted through aqueducts and canals, allowing brackish water to infiltrate deeper into the delta and placing more stress on the tiny fish.

Environmentalists, who contend that the Delta smelt is near extinction, have said that the species is considered the bellwether of the health of the delta ecosystem and that its dwindling numbers are an alarming signal for the state’s water crisis.

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