Court Victory for Yuba Salmon
Two Federal Dams in Violation of Salmon Protection Laws
Sacramento, CA – After decades of mismanagement, failed negotiations and over four years of litigation to protect wild salmon populations on the brink of extinction, citizen groups declared legal victory today for Yuba Salmon.
A judge has ruled that the operations plan for two federal dams on the Yuba River is inadequate to protect California’s threatened salmon, steelhead and green sturgeon. The plan, known as a Biological Opinion, was re-written three times by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under the Bush Administration. In a case initiated by the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) and Friends of the River, Judge Karlton of the United States District Court in Sacramento ruled on Friday that the current Biological Opinion issued by NMFS in 2007 was “arbitrary and capricious” in that it failed to adequately analyze numerous impacts on listed salmon species arising from two dams on the Yuba River.
“This is an important precedent setting victory for Yuba salmon and steelhead. The court has ruled that NMFS has failed to adequately consider a full range of impacts from dams and failed to require measures that address these impacts. Judge Karlton’s decision is critical for protecting threatened salmon species,” states Christopher Sproul, lead attorney for Environmental Advocates, who is representing the citizens groups who initiated the legal action in December 2006.
The 76-page ruling addresses a wide range of impacts stemming from the operation of Daguerre Point Dam and Englebright Dam—two “debris” dams under the management of the US Army Corps of Engineers, and associated projects owned and operated by non-federal agencies. Daguerre Point Dam has antiquated fish ladders that impact upstream and downstream migration of salmonid species and Englebright Dam is a complete barrier to over a hundred miles of ancestral spawning habitat for steelhead and Spring-run Chinook salmon. The Yuba River is one of the few major rivers in the Sacramento Valley without a hatchery, and thus represents one of the best and last strongholds for self-sustaining wild salmon populations.
“SYRCL’s been advocating for fish passage analysis at these antiquated federal dams for over a decade. They weren’t built for water supply or hydropower, and today they play a negligible role in flood management. American taxpayers continue to subsidize these negative-value dams, yet the agency’s own scientists agree the dams block access to salmon habitat that is needed to prevent the extinction of these threatened species,” states Jason Rainey, executive director for SYRCL.
The court order comes after a three year collapse in salmon populations throughout the Sacramento River system that has grounded commercial and recreational salmon fishing throughout California and up most the coast of Oregon. The 2009 salmon runs—which includes the distinctive populations of adult salmon that migrate through the Golden Gate in the spring, fall and winter—were the lowest on record, with an estimated 39,500 Chinook salmon returning to the Sacramento River and tributaries. The Yuba River supported an estimated 12% of the entire run in 2009, and likely represents the majority of wild (ie. Non-hatchery produced) salmon in the whole of the Central Valley Chinook salmon population.
“The Yuba River represents the next—and perhaps last—opportunity for bold Chinook salmon restoration measures in California. There’s a track-record of collaboration and a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure fish passage and cold water are built into the license terms for the dams on the Yuba River. This ruling sends a strong message to the federal agencies—the time to act for Yuba salmon is now,” states Steve Evans of Friends of the River, referring to the collaborative settlement for improved in-stream flows known as the Yuba Accord and the current regulatory process through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for issuing new licenses on hydropower dams in the Yuba Basin for the first time since 1963.
The court agreed with SYRCL and Friends of the River in ruling that a range of factors associated with the dams were inadequately analyzed. The citizens groups also argued that the absence of any analysis on factors such as hatchery influence, conditions in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, and changing climactic conditions was a legal failure of duty. The court largely agreed, and has remanded the BiOp back to NMFS.
“We’re relieved by the court’s ruling and feel that our arguments have been heard. Still, we’re fighting the feds to produce a couple of dam studies and to cooperate amongst themselves. Without political action by the Obama administration, actual relief for California’s wild salmon is a long way off. We need action by the federal government now, or California’s salmon-based economy and ecology may slip past the point of no return on Obama’s watch,” concludes Rainey.
Founded in 1983, the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL, pronounced ‘circle’) is a public-benefit organization based in Nevada City, CA with a mission to protect and restore the Yuba River and the Greater Yuba Watershed, from source to sea. www.YubaRiver.org.
Friends of the River (FOR) is a California-based non-profit organization working exclusively on behalf of California rivers. FOR protects and restores rivers by influencing public policy, educating the public, and inspiring grassroots citizen action, and is nationally recognized as an authority on the adverse impacts of dams on rivers and ecosystems. www.friendsoftheriver.org