Proposed hydro-power project on Yuba River draws scrutiny
November 1, 2012
River lovers, fishery biologists and conservation groups that have worked for years to improve salmon habitat on the lower Yuba River are troubled by a Canadian energy company’s proposal to build a “fish-friendly” hydro-power project adjacent to a dam that many want to see come down.
Archon Energy Ltd. has identified 50 stakeholders to its proposal for a clean-energy facility at Daguerre Point Dam in Yuba County.
On Oct. 22, during the first public meeting for the project, many raised concerns about the project’s timeline, unknown effects to irrigation diversions, recreation and endangered fish and pointed to a need for more environmental studies.
“We want to see the fisheries sustained and invigorated ... We’re here to work with everybody.”
— Archon Energy COO Kevin Ablett
Nearly two-dozen people in support of the Nevada City-based advocacy group the South Yuba River Citizens League filled Yuba County’s Supervisors Chambers to hear details of the project and voice their opposition to it.
An application filed in July by Archon Energy Ltd. with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is incomplete in determining risks to three anadromous fish species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, say fishery biologists.
“Yes, there are risks, and those will need to be evaluated. The details of the project are somewhat lacking. Our concerns are for anadromous fish species — Spring Run Chinook (salmon), (Central Valley) Steelhead and green sturgeon, also Fall Chinook,” important to commercial and sport fisheries, said Gary Sprague, fish biologist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries.
In August, SYRCL, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Foothill Conservancy and American Whitewater sent a joint letter to FERC requesting the agency deny the use of a traditional licensing process for the Archon Project, saying the fast-track process is inappropriate for such a complex and “controversial” project.
“I am confident that Archon Energy understands that SYRCL will not support a new hydropower project on the Lower Yuba River that would set back efforts to restore wild salmon … SYRCL looks forward to working closely with Archon Energy and expect them to be diligent in performing all necessary studies before moving ahead,” said SYRCL Executive Director Caleb Dardick.
Other agencies sent responses of their own, including, the Yuba County Water Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the California Department of Fish and Game.
SYRCL says the project conflicts with a February 2012 Biological Opinion issued by NMFS that found Daguerre Point Dam likely endangers three listed species of endangered fish.
In the document, NMFS ordered the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam, to improve fish passage for migrating salmon, steelhead and sturgeon. Proponents of dam removal worry a hydro-electric project will entrench the century-old Daguerre Point Dam for 50 years.
“This is actually where the dams can come down,” said Jessie Raeder, president of SalmonAid, a San Francisco-based advocacy group.
She called Daguerre a “ghost dam.” The low-head dam was first built over a century ago by the California Debris Commission to collect and dredge mine tailings and control erratic flooding caused by historic hydraulic mining but no longer serves that purpose.
“It’s old and out of date,” Sprague said.
The National Environmental Policy Act requires the Army Corps of Engineers to consider a no-dam option as part of its analysis of fish passage improvements.
Of 13 rivers identified in the state, the Yuba River stands the best chance of returning salmon to ancestral spawning grounds, Raeder said.
Archon President Paul Grist says the project is a chance to improve fisheries.
“Many seem to believe that the dam will be removed,” Grist said. “Our research has led us to believe this probably won’t happen in our lifetimes. The proposed fish improvement projects may never be fully financed, and that’s why we are here. We can finance and build in the blink of an eye versus the many decades this has and will continue on for. The bottom line is we can start saving the salmon now.”
During a presentation, Chief Operating Officer Kevin Ablett says his company’s project will improve the Yuba River’s fishery by providing better fish passage, local jobs and enough clean energy to power all the homes in Marysville and Linda. He repeatedly invited cooperation with stakeholders.
“We want to see the fisheries sustained and invigorated … We’re here to work with everybody,” Ablett said.
Despite Archon’s open-armed approach, fishermen remained skeptical of the project that they say has the potential to further fish decline already decimated by Gold Rush hydraulic mining and a century’s worth of dams and diversions.
“It’s getting down to the point where (the fishery) may not repair itself naturally,” said Frank Rinella of Sierra Guide Service, a professional guide on the Lower Yuba for the past 20 years. He says the existing fish ladders at Daguerre are “inadequate” and is concerned about creating more hazards for fish already in trouble.
“Then there’s no coming back,” he said.
Fishery on the brink
“There used to be a lot more fish on the river 20 years ago than there are now,” said fisherman Raymond Binner.
Two recent guided ocean fishing trips in Fort Bragg turned up only two fish, he said. He has witnessed towns along the Rogue River in Oregon wither in recent years as fishing jobs diminished.
“The numbers aren’t back … We’re going to end up making them extinct and ourselves, too,” he said.
It’s normal for fish populations to fluctuate year after year as records of the past four years show. But when numbers fall in the hundreds, like they did for the Spring Run Chinook last year, it becomes a low number to keep genetically viable, said Sprague. Times are precarious for Fall Run Chinook populations, as well, most notably in 2007 when runs crashed and forced fishing closures up and down the west coast.
Because of dams, Fall and Spring Run Chinook on the Yuba are no longer geographically separated, an environment that has reduced the strength of Spring Run populations along with interbreeding with stray hatchery fish. Much less is known about Steelhead, which also traditionally depended on habitat upstream from Englebright Dam.
Historically, Central Valley Chinook in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and tributaries was one of the largest populations in California and the West, Sprague said.
Records show Chinook salmon populations of up to 600,000, a bounty that gave rise to the cannery industry. In 1883, commercial fishing boats harvested 500,000 Spring Chinook Salmon, according to Sprague.
In 2011, preliminary counts of Spring Run Chinook show only about 100 returned to the Yuba.
In recent years, there has been much talk of fish collection and transport by truck as an alternative to dam removal. Collection on the north side of the river is preferred for truck access, but Sprague said a hydro-power project built on the south side will create a challenge.
“That might complicate things,” he said.
Archon’s proposed “non-traditional” hydro-power project also presents unknown impacts to green sturgeon. Among the largest and most ancient of all cartilaginous fish, sturgeon can grow as long as six feet. They are already impeded from passing beyond Daguerre Dam.
Spawning populations for green sturgeon for the Central Valley are estimated to be as low as 100 fish, according to SYRCL river scientist Gary Reedy. It is unclear if the new project would allow fish passage for sturgeon.
“There is only one known spawning area (Sacramento River below Red Bluff dam), and the National Marine Fisheries Service has stated that the risk of extinction will remain high until another spawning population is re-established. They have noted the lower Yuba River above Daguerre Point Dam as one of the most promising possibilities for recovery,” Reedy said.
It is unclear how salmon “fry” and “smolts” moving downstream to the ocean and upstream migrating fish will be protected from injury caused by disorientation, smacking into concrete walls and predatory fish.
Archon says it does not propose to do additional studies to address impacts to Yuba River fish, saying sufficient information is readily available.
What is an Archimedean Screw Turbine?
Archon Energy says the Daguerre Point Dam is a suitable site for building a hydropower facility using Hydrodynamic Archimedean Screw Turbines.
Ablett said the Archimedes Screw design is efficient and fish friendly, and the three megawatts produced is enough electricity to power 2,000 homes in Marysville and Linda.
According to Archon Chief Operating Officer Kevin Ablett, the turbines of the Archimedes Screw turn slowly, and the design allows fish to travel safely past the dam, almost like an escalator.
“This is not a fish blender,” Ablett said.
Kinetic energy of flowing water drives eight augur-like turbines, a design based on technology first used 2,000 years ago to lift water to irrigate farms. Few exist in the U.S. Currently only one is operating in Maine and another project is in the planning stages in Idaho, said Archon’s president, Paul Grist.
After studying numerous sites and working closely with turbine manufacturers, this will be the first time Archon Energy has installed such a design anywhere, Grist said.
As many as 200 similar models are used in Europe, said Grist, but critics argue the river dynamics are different there and so are the fish.
In the U.S., screw pumps are found most often in wastewater treatment plants, Ablett said. The closest example resembling what Archon is proposing on the Lower Yuba was used in a slightly different fashion on the Sacramento River near Red Bluff.
Those pumps were discontinued at the Red Bluff diversion site when the maintenance and energy costs to use them became impractical.
“If used on a smaller scale, it could be a whole different story (economically). From a fish health standpoint, that technology is fine,” said Don Reck, Environmental Division manager for the Northern California Office of the Bureau of Reclamation.
According to Archon’s website, the project at Daguerre is one of five proposed existing dam sites on California rivers that also include the Kern River, the Kings River, the Merced River and the Feather River.
“We have looked all over the world at various project sites. We like it here,” Ablett said.
Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at (530) 401-4877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.