One of the most significant measures undertaken to protect California’s iconic Sacramento River salmon runs and improve fish passage will enter its final stage this summer.
Workers are completing a new, more fish-friendly pumping station at the former Red Bluff Diversion Dam, a river-spanning structure operated by the Tehama Colusa Canal Authority. The dam’s seasonal operations had provided water for 150,000 agricultural acres for decades, but also prevented threatened and endangered salmon, steelhead, green sturgeon and other fish from migrating to and from their spawning grounds.
The win-win project is the result of trailbreaking efforts by Earthjustice attorneys to help struggling Sacramento salmon populations. Those efforts started way back in 1988, when scientists realized that the river’s once-mighty winter-run Chinook salmon population was headed for extinction.
Earthjustice attorney Mike Sherwood took up the fight back then and managed to get the winter-run listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This led the federal government to take steps to recover the species, such as installing a temperature control device in Shasta Dam to allow cold water to be released from the bottom of the reservoir for spawning salmon, and cleaning up toxic pollution from Iron Mountain Mine.
Since 1988, a number of additional legal victories have helped save the Sacramento’s native fish. And in 2008, a U.S. district court finally ordered the federal government to find a solution to the ecological harm caused by the Red Bluff dam. After nearly three years of construction on an alternative diversion and pumping system, the dam’s gates were raised for the last time in September 2011, allowing fish to pass freely by the now-defunct dam.
Workers expect to wrap up the job in September, but the new pumping facility has already begun functioning, drawing water through a quarter-mile-long wall of fish screens to grow almonds, walnuts, olives, rice and other crops.
The new diversion facility isn’t just a major victory for fish and farmers: the multi-million dollar, three-year-long project represents the Department of Interior’s largest economic recovery project in the nation, boosting construction jobs and related economic activity in northern California.
The expected boost in Sacramento River salmon runs will also help support thousands of salmon fishing jobs, seafood production, hundreds of millions of dollars of annual economic activity, and recreational opportunities along the California and Oregon coast for generations to come.
Perhaps best of all, the overall project is expected to come in at $40 million under budget. Planners originally estimated that the new facility would $230 million, but later lowered their projection to $190 million.