In January 1997, melting snow swamped the rivers of northern California, breaking through levees and ravaging thousands of acres. People lost not only their homes and their farms, but three people lost their lives. We knew the levees needed to be fixed. A 1990 Corps of Engineers report stated, “Loss of human life is expected under existing conditions, without remedial repairs for major flood events.”
We also knew the flood was coming. Scientists had been monitoring the heavy snow pack for months and reported that any early spring warming would cause millions of gallons of water to flow almost instantly into the Sacramento River valley. With all this foresight then, how did we allow such massive destruction and loss of life to occur?
We allowed it because the Endangered Species Act required it. This well-intentioned, 28-year-old law has turned into a bureaucratic nightmare. The law has strangled common sense with so much red tape that even loss of human life has become a tragic, but unavoidable side effect. In 1990, the managers of California Reclamation District 784 applied to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for permits to begin maintenance of the levees.
They needed the permit because Elderberry bushes were growing on the levees. While Elderberry bushes are not an endangered species, they are a favored spot for the North Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle, which is listed as endangered. They never found any beetles, but the USFWS required a six-year study and a program to plant acres of new Elderberry bushes. Work on the levees couldn’t begin until this mitigation was complete. When, in 1996, the Reclamation District sensed an emergency, it asked for relief from the Endangered Species Act, but the USFWS denied the permit.
Six months later we watched in disbelief as floods broke the weakened levees and killed three people, and ironically, all of the Elderberry bushes.
In that year, members of Congress from the west tried to change the Endangered Species Act. My colleagues from California, Rep. Wally Herger and Rep. Richard Pombo offered a bill to amend ESA to allow emergency repairs in order to save human life. But the U.S. House of Representatives ultimately rejected this effort in a remarkably callous stroke.
Now the pigeons or rather the bald eagles have come home to roost, and they are nesting near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. The Potomac River is also host to other endangered species, notably the short-nosed sturgeon. An environmental watchdog group, the National Wilderness Institute (NWI), has documented the species and plans to file suit under the ESA to stop construction of the replacement bridge.
The regulators inside the Beltway, however, think reconstruction of the bridge can work around the species. Even though fish have a tough time swimming upriver to spawn when bridges are being exploded and river bottoms dredged, Washington regulators plan to avoid harming the fish by eliminating their habitat, which would keep them out of the area a big no-no under the ESA.
Moreover, people have to wonder what will happen to the 20 or more bald eagles living in the area. There are even documented nesting sites within the footprint of the new bridge which have mysteriously disappeared during the past year but these populations have been all but disregarded by the bridge project.
It is interesting to note how different the standards of enforcement are.
Over 700 species are listed or proposed for protection in the five West Coast states that make up Region 1 of the USFWS. In contrast only 42 species are listed or proposed in the 13 Northeastern states of Region 5. The USFWS spends well over 50 percent of its enforcement budget in Region 1 compared to just 4 percent in Region 5. This inequity would seem to illustrate that endangered species live only in the West, but we know this is not the case. Endangered species can be found wherever you choose to look.
Unequal enforcement means that only some people ever get to see how bad the law is. We in the West have pleaded for years that ESA is broken in terrible need of reform. Sadly, our pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The Wilson Bridge, however, hits close to home. I want to see the bridge built and have supported funding for it, but if the area is teeming with endangered species as it seems to be, the law should be enforced.
With the NWI lawsuit, people in Washington will get a good dose of just how well the Endangered Species Act works and understand exactly why it is a broken law in need of change. My real hope is that as commuters face gridlock, and government frets about red tape, we will all remember the people in California who lost their families to the 1997 floods. We should work together to bring sensible change to the Endangered Species Act.
When traffic in Washington affects the regulators making enforcement decisions, then we will see how quickly reform can be accomplished.
Rep. George Radanovich, California Republican, serves on the Resources Committee of the House of Representatives, and is the chairman of the Western Caucus in the House.