Slippery California Salamander May Soon be Underwater

Limestone salamander. © Gary Navis

The endangered limestone salamander lives nowhere else in the world except in the lower Merced River region of California. But if a local hydropower company has its way, crucial habitat for this slippery salamander will soon be underwater.

And that’s bad news for this extremely rare amphibian, which is one of the few species of salamander that survives solely on land.

Emerging during cool, damp weather, limestone salamanders dwell much of the year below ground to escape the Merced River canyon’s hot, arid climate. They breathe through their skin, and because they lack lungs or gills, they must remain moist to move oxygen out of air into their bodies.

Up until recently, the limestone salamander has had things pretty good in the canyon. Its habitat is so remarkable that it has been designated a Wild and Scenic River, which means a good stretch of it — from the beginning in Yosemite National Park to the McClure Reservoir in central California — is protected from development.

The Merced River flows through Yosemite National Park

That’s the way Wild and Scenic River protection is supposed to work, but some members of Congress have other ideas. U.S. Representative Jeff Denham of California has introduced two bills that would strip Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protections from a portion of the Merced River in the Golden State, so that the Merced Irrigation District can expand its reservoir and sell more water to make electricity.

But expanding the McClure will submerge key limestone salamander habitat at the worst possible time in the late spring and early summer — when they are cloistered underground alongside their eggs. Even if they beat the rising waters to the surface, their chances of escape are slim. They will still have to scramble to higher grounds during some of the hottest, driest, deadliest days of the year.

The first bill (HR 869) aims to make room for the expansion by rolling back protections for a section of the river directly upstream of the reservoir. If passed, Congress would set a dangerous precedent, marking the first time lawmakers have ever taken protections away from a Wild and Scenic River. Even worse is that the bill would allow the reservoir to be so vastly enlarged that it will block what is currently a free-flowing river of national and local importance.

This outrageous move completely undermines the intent of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and is likely to kill endangered limestone salamanders, which is illegal under California law.

This broad proposal could have lasting impacts on the Merced as well as other protected rivers across the country – all for the short-term gain of a single water district.

The other legislation (HR 2578) is a backdoor attack on the Merced River’s protections. It seeks to move the Merced River’s legal boundary line above the proposed hydropower project’s border. Officially, the bill would establish a policy mandating that Wild and Scenic River boundaries cannot overlap with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hydropower project boundaries. But this broad proposal could have lasting impacts on the Merced as well as other protected rivers across the country – all for the short-term gain of a single water district.

This bad news for people who cherish and depend on these special rivers, but it could doom the tiny limestone salamander to extinction. Defenders is working to put a stop to these misguided proposals. Stay tuned as the saga unfolds.