Hydropower Dams Endangering Local Fish Species
Best loved for its gorgeous hiking trails, popular granite swimming holes and waterfalls, and challenging whitewater runs, the Yuba River originates in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and ends in the Sacramento Valley.
The Yuba River is one of California’s last refuges for spring-run Chinook salmon and provides drinking and agricultural water and recreation opportunities to surrounding communities and beyond. One of three forks of the Yuba, the South Yuba, has been designated a Wild and Scenic River and attracts more than 500,000 visitors a year.
The spring-run Chinook salmon and steelhead are already threatened species. Two outdated federal dams block their migration to more than 100 miles of historic spawning habitat in the upper Yuba River. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recognizes that passage above the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Englebright Dam on the Yuba should be the primary measure to recover endangered salmon in the Northern Sierra region.
However, contrary to scientific consensus, the latest Biological Opinion on dam operations, issued in 2007, doesn’t address the issue of fish passage at the dam. Partly as a result of this weakness, a federal judge chastised the Army Corps and NMFS for "failing their duty" to protect salmon and ordered them to develop a new Biological Opinion.
Now, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is reviewing four hydropower licenses within the Yuba River basin. So it falls to these four federal agencies to share the responsibility to help recover salmon in the Yuba River.
What Must Be Done
The best action that could be taken at the federal level to restore wild salmon back to the upper Yuba River would be a mandate for fish passage at Englebright Dam.
The Army Corps owns the dam, and is therefore the entity most responsible for ensuring that salmon are appropriately and effectively returned to their habitat upstream. The Army Corps must initiate a feasibility study, the first step towards restoring Yuba salmon above the Englebright Dam.
The Army Corps must also work with the Yuba County Water Agency and Pacific Gas & Electric, who generate power below the dam, to ensure salmon passage through the Yuba River. The National Marine Fisheries Service must apply the best available science in the issuance of its forthcoming Biological Opinion and mandate fish passage at Englebright Dam as a condition for the continued operation of this federal facility.