Mere weeks after filing suit against a federal agency, South Yuba River Citizens League and Friends of the River filed another lawsuit — this time against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for alleged failure to comply with the Endangered Species Act requirements to protect the Yuba’s salmon.
“SYRCL has decided we must file suit again to protect Yuba salmon and have done so today with Friends of the River,” said Caleb Dardick, executive director of SYRCL. “We think this may be a precedent setting case as our disagreement about how best to restore salmon goes to the heart of the question about whether the owners and operators of dams have a legal responsibility for the protection of these listed species.”
In 2006, SYRCL and Friends of the River sued the federal government to demand better protection for the river’s endangered fish.
In February 2012, the National Marines Fisheries Service under a court order released a formal biological opinion, which found the operation of two Army Corps of Engineers dams on the Yuba River, Englebright and Daguerre Point dams, jeopardize the survival and recovery of the three anadromous fish species by blocking the fish from migrating upstream to adequate spawning habitat.
“It is as a direct result of SYRCL’s and FOR’s 2006 litigation that the February 2012 biological opinion found that these threatened fish are in jeopardy of extinction,” Dardick said. “SYRCL had hoped to avoid litigation and spent the past year advocating for a collaborative, science-based approach to protect these fish. But the Army Corps’ inaction and the determination of other parties to roll back protections for these endangered fish left us no choice but to file this lawsuit (Monday).”
The Yuba River holds three species of endangered fish; the spring-run Chinook salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon.
“Salmon and steelhead were listed as threatened in the late 1990s and last year we learned that they are in jeopardy of extinction,” said SYRCL Board President John Regan. “They can’t afford another decade of delay and inaction. Hopefully this lawsuit will result in timely, collaborative solutions to restore healthy runs of wild salmon and steelhead that will rebuild California’s fisheries, foster economic development, and create jobs.”
Earlier this month, SYRCL filed a complaint against the NMFS for improperly extending critical deadlines for the Army Corps to implement numerous measures to protect these three protected fish species given their extremely precarious status.
The Yuba County Water Agency has joined the Army Corps in opposing implementation of the biological opinion and recently filed its own lawsuit against NMFS seeking to have the biological opinion revoked.
“On the one hand, NMFS has said that Yuba salmon are in jeopardy of extinction unless timely action is taken,” Dardick said. “On the other hand, the Army Corps has repeatedly stated that it does not intend to comply even with the very reasonable incremental measures needed in the short term.
“Since this stalemate has gone on for over a decade, our citizen suit is necessary to stop the foot dragging.”
The Army Corps maintains a consideration and care for the river with the intention of resolving the situation.
“Our position is to say that it is our core policy to not comment on acting or pending legislation,” said Chris Gray, Army Corps spokesman. “But we care about the river and are trying to work with everyone involved to do what’s best and within our authority, continue preserving the habitat for threatened fish and find solutions that work for all of us.”
The Army Corps said in previous interviews that it did not possess the authority to implement many of the orders contained in the biological opinion, including removal of the dam, which would take an act of Congress.
Christopher Sproul, lead counsel for SYRCL disagreed.
Although the Army Corps claims that the biological opinion requires actions that are outside of their authority, NMFS took care to enumerate the various laws and regulations which give the Corps the necessary authority,” Sproul said. “NMFS’ analysis makes plain that the Corps can indeed implement the biological opinion.”
SYRCL recently launched a letter writing campaign to Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as to Congressmen John Garamendi and Doug LaMalfa urging them to lead efforts to protect California’s vital fisheries. SYRCL collected over 2,000 postcards during the 2013 Wild & Scenic Film Festival, which will be hand-delivered to federal lawmakers representing the Yuba watershed.
According to Gary Reed, SYRCL science director, the biological opinion has sound scientific properties and is a start to improve the condition of the endangered fish in question.
“The biological opinion, while not perfect, does base its requirements in science and an urgent need to improve conditions for species at risk of extinction,” Reed said. “By implementing the required actions, the Army Corps could be at the forefront of a collaborative process to implement necessary habitat improvement projects and develop a fish passage project beneficial to fish and the local economy.”
Spring-run Chinook salmon were once plentiful in the Central Valley, with more than 600,000 returning to their natal streams each year. But the construction of impassable dams in the 20th century reduced the habitat available to the species by 80 percent, resulting in substantial population declines, according to SYRCL.
In 2011, fewer than 5,000 spring Chinook returned to the Central Valley, a reduction of over 99 percent from historical levels, SYRCL said.
Providing fish passage at Englebright and Daguerre dams is urgently needed to halt this continuing slide toward extinction, SYRCL said.
“The Yuba River is widely recognized as one of the best opportunities in the state for restoring salmon and steelhead,” Dardick said. “SYRCL wants the Army Corps to take responsibility for its two Yuba River dams as required under the Endangered Species Act so that these threatened species thrive and are no longer in jeopardy of extinction.
“The Army Corps’ inaction and the determination of other parties to roll back protections for these endangered fish left us no choice but to file this lawsuit …”
— Caleb Dardick,
executive director of SYRCL