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Spring 2012

Yuba River Dams in Question

A recent federal biological opinion for two dams on the Yuba River has water officials, farmers and ranchers concerned about the future of their water supplies. 

A federal judge ordered the opinion as part of a lawsuit launched by a Nevada County based environmental group known as South Yuba River Citizens League and a Sacramento based environmental group known as Friends of the River.  The lawsuit challenged a 2006 biological opinion issued to the Army Corps of Engineers that the environmental groups claimed did not, among other things, provide adequate fish passage. The court agreed with the environmental groups and ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to prepare a new biological opinion.

The new biological opinion was issued by National Marine Fisheries Service in late February and calls for a number of changes to be made to the operation of Daguerre Point and Englebright dams.  If the measures for fish passage are not successful, the dams may have to be removed in the future.

The new opinion comes with huge costs to implement the fish passage measures required.  By 2014, the Army Corps of Engineers must develop a “trap and transport” plan to truck fish around Englebright dam. Permanent fish passage around Englebright is ordered by January 31, 2020.  Modifications must also be made to Daguerre Point dam to improve fish passage around that dam.

Englebright Dam is over 270 feet tall and designing a fish ladder will definitely be an engineering challenge.  Yuba County Water Agency, which supplies water to eight irrigation districts in the area, sent a 12-page letter outlining their concerns about the recent biological opinion.  Curt Aiken YCWA general manager said, “it appears parts of the draft opinion are factually incorrect, internally inconsistent, or based on unsupported opinions rather than the best available scientific or commercial evidence.”

Both Daguerre Point and Englebright dams were constructed to prevent debris from the Gold Rush-era mining from damaging the river channel and fish habitat, for flood protection and to supply irrigation water to over 100,000 acres of farmland. 

Water officials and farmers are shocked with the approach this recent opinion has taken in light of the 17-party Lower Yuba River Accord that was signed just years earlier.  The Lower Yuba River Accord was an effort to end over 20 years of infighting between famers, cities and environmental interests over water use. NMFS supported the agreement and Governor Schwarzenegger hailed it  as a huge success.

About a third of Yuba County Water Agencies water deliveries are through the south canal to the farmland near Marysville and Wheatland.  Changes in operations and river levels near Daguerre Point dam would have huge impacts to Brophy Water District which gravity feeds about 70,000 acre feet of water through their canals.  The biological opinion would not only impact their water supply but also calls for an updated fish screen at their point of diversion. 

This opinion lacks the collaborative approach that is necessary to achieve a balance between man and nature.  As taxpayers we deserve to know how much these measures will cost and should be provided assurances that our communities and the state will benefit. ■


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