Peter Van Zant: National attention for the beleaguered Bear River | TheUnion.com
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Peter Van Zant: National attention for the beleaguered Bear River

The Bear River in southern Nevada County has drawn local attention after Nevada Irrigation District (NID) announced the Centennial Dam project between Rollins and Combie reservoirs, inundating another six miles of this iconic Sierra river canyon.

NID has given the impression that Centennial is a "done deal." It is not and the outcome is uncertain.

Now the Bear River has national attention by being included in the 2017 "America's Most Endangered Rivers" report from American Rivers, a national river conservation organization. In their words:

"One of the great rivers of the Sierra Nevada, the Bear River supports Native American culture, fish and wildlife and community recreation. Much of the watershed has been dammed and developed for water supply and energy production, making the few remaining free-flowing stretches of the Bear River all the more valuable. But now, one of these last free-flowing reaches is threatened by the proposed 275-foot-tall Centennial Dam. Instead of rushing to build an expensive, damaging and unnecessary new dam, Nevada Irrigation District must consider other water supply solutions, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must fully analyze alternatives at a critical time for water planning in California."

American Rivers' observations mirror local Sierra conservationists calling for NID to explore proven system and conservation alternatives without the damage of a $1 billion dam.

There are many legal hurdles a project of this size and impact must address, in addition to making financial sense.

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Environmental Studies: A draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is expected for public and agency comment this spring. The NID Board of Directors must vote to certify the final EIR and they face your vote, too.

Also, NID must obtain a permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to "dredge" the river requiring an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act, a process that just started. The project cannot happen without this permit and USACE must approve the least environmentally damaging approach to achieving the project's goals. Twelve conservation organizations and many others have provided comments to the scoping document, including: "The DEIS must articulate a clear purpose and need statement that facilitates a robust alternatives analysis."

Both of these environmental reports can be legally challenged.

Water Rights: Water rights are required from the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). NID has filed to divert another 221,400 acre-feet from the Bear River which has been protested by fourteen conservation groups and individuals, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Reclamation, County of Contra Costa, Placer County Water Agency, County of Placer and South Sutter Water District. No hearing date has been set by the SWRCB and the outcome is uncertain.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC): NID has indicated the inclusion of a hydropower facility associated with the dam which would need approval from FERC, which requires a detailed process taking years to complete with uncertain requirements.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property acquisition: Although not necessary for Centennial, NID desires to acquire BLM properties in the canyon. This would require facilitation by Congressman Doug LaMalfa who, referring to these BLM lands, was quoted in the February 24, 2017 Union, "It's a local decision and we support that." Why is NID seeking these BLM lands? BLM used its authority within the Federal Power Act to require seven important environmental conditions on the Bear River in recent FERC license proceedings. These requirements would end forever if the lands were transferred, even if the dam were not built.

Private property acquisition: NID is actively buying private properties in and near the Bear River canyon with rate and tax-payers money. How many properties and their location is being kept under wraps. If the dam does not proceed, there is no information on what NID would do with the properties or the impact on local property values. Millions have already been spent on property acquisitions.

Nevada and Placer counties: County Planning Departments will comment on the EIR and EIS sections concerning the bridge and roads needed to replace the Dog Bar bridge. The county Boards of Supervisors have no official role in the project, but the supervisors can advocate for their constituents' interests.

Centennial Dam is not a "done deal." In fact it is just beginning an uncertain, multifaceted public approval process. However, with little public input to date, NID has already spent our scarce resources on Centennial Dam as their preferred project.

Peter Van Zant is a member of the Centennial Dam Work Group. He is a former Nevada County supervisor and a former president of the SYRCL board of directors. He lives in Nevada City.