By John McManus
The federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) is 40 years old this year. The law is America’s promise to keep our wildlife from going extinct, which is almost always caused by human activity that destroys habitat. The ESA forces us humans to stop and think twice before we develop, cut, log, mine, graze, or pollute if those actions are likely to threaten or endanger a species.
Salmon fishermen have a particular reason to be thankful for the ESA. We probably would not have wild salmon in California today without it. That’s because development and diversion of the Sacramento River, home to many of our salmon runs, was so destructive that by the early 1990s we were on the brink of seeing a couple of runs go extinct. Salmon did go extinct in California’s other great river, the San Joaquin, when we dammed it in the 1940s and refused to release enough water to keep the river downstream alive. This wouldn’t have happened if the ESA existed at the time.
On the Sacramento River, the winter-run Chinook salmon were reduced to less than 200 fish and were about to disappear from the face of the earth forever, when the federal government finally protected the survivors under the ESA. This prompted actions to turn things around, starting with fish-friendly screens on two massive agricultural diversions, and modification of the Shasta Dam to release cold water from deep inside Lake Shasta, instead of the warm surface water lethal to salmon.
Next, $200 million was spent stopping horrendous acid pollution from a nearby abandoned mine that was poisoning the river. Access to spawning gravel in the upper river was restored when a seasonal dam was opened. Finally, restrictions on diversion of Delta water were applied in 2009. Diverting the water was sucking the fish off their natural migration path to their deaths. All of these actions were only done because of the ESA. More....