SYRCL sues federal agency for not protecting fish in Yuba River

The plot surrounding a February 2012 biological opinion issued by a federal agency took another twist Friday.

Only two days after the Yuba County Water Agency sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, the South Yuba River Citizens League filed a complaint in federal court Friday, contending that the federal service has weakened Endangered Species Act protections on three species of fish endemic to the Yuba River.

Essentially, the fisheries service — a federal agency dedicated to the management of U.S. marine resources — is being assailed from both sides of a debate that continues to center on the existence of two dams on the Yuba River — the 270-foot Englebright Dam and the 26-foot Daguerre Point Dam.

In February, the fisheries service issued a biological opinion that ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which operates both dams — to implement multiple actions to reintroduce three endangered species of fish to the upper watershed of the Yuba River.

The fisheries service stated in a biological opinion that the best method of fish reintroduction is dismantling the two dams.

On Wednesday, Yuba County’s water agency filed a suit that said that opinion is “significantly flawed, presents unacceptable social, economic and environmental risks to … the entire region.”

Friday, SYRCL accused the fisheries service of improperly extending critical deadlines for the Army Corps to implement the numerous measures to protect the fish species “given their extremely precarious status,” according to a statement issued Friday.

“(The fisheries service’s) unilateral extension of key deadlines directly contradicts their detailed opinion issued just last February that Yuba salmon are in jeopardy of extinction unless timely action is taken,” said SYRCL Executive Director Caleb Dardick. “SYRCL is asking the court to order the fisheries service to rescind its letter and reinstate the former deadlines.”

SYRCL is essentially trying to defend the fisheries service’s biological opinion from the water agency and Army Corps, Dardick said in the release.

In February after the biological opinion was issued, the Army Corps said it did not have the authority to dismantle the dams as that would take an act of the U.S. Congress.

“Although the Army Corps has claimed that it lacks the means and the authority to implement the biological opinion and its original deadlines, the biological opinion explained how existing laws and regulations give the Corps the necessary authority, and other internal documents point to resources the Army Corps can tap,” said Christopher Sproul at Environmental Advocates, lead counsel for SYRCL.

The fisheries service has repeatedly recognized the Yuba River provides one of the best opportunities in California for restoring salmon and trout, two of the listed fish species, Dardick said. Spring-run chinook salmon were once plentiful in the Central Valley, with more than 600,000 returning to their natal streams each year, Dardick said.

But the construction of impassable dams in the 20th century reduced the historic spawning habitat available to the species by 95 percent, resulting in substantial population declines.

In 2011, fewer than 5,000 spring chinook returned to the Central Valley, a reduction of more than 99 percent from historical levels.

The water agency said removal of the Englebright Dam would not only detrimentally impact hydroelectric operations currently in place but would be environmentally disastrous in that there are 28 million cubic yards of contaminated debris left over from the hydraulic mining days stored behind the dam.

The release of these materials would create “immense public health and safety, environmental and financial challenges,” the agency said in a Wednesday release.

Dardick said the argument put forward by the water agency is specious, as science-based cleanup operations would necessarily accompany any dam removal efforts.

He further contended SYRCL would lend a hand in making the dam removal operations as cost-effective as possible.

Daguerre Point Dam is also a flash point for a different type of controversy, as Archon Energy, a Canadian utility company, was awarded a preliminary permit to explore construction of a hydroelectric facility by the dam.

SYRCL and YWCA, polarized on the issue of the biological opinion, have both voiced serious concerns about the project’s potential impact on the local environment.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email mrenda@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4239.


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The Union Updated Mar 29, 2013 09:21PM Published Jan 15, 2013 08:54AM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.