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Englebright’s lasting legacy

Ben van der Meer
The Union news service
Photo for The Union by John Hart
John Hart | The Union

In its origin, Englebright Dam was meant to stop one of the more lamentable legacies of the state’s identity: the search for gold and the wasteful, toxic sediments the search unearthed.

More than 70 years later, the dam is seen by some as a barrier to restoring another, less heralded state legacy: runs of shiny, healthy salmon and other fish between the state’s foothills and the ocean.

The future of the dam, built in 1941, could be boiled down to a choice between those two overlapping functions: a sturdy obstacle for sediment that would otherwise choke the Yuba River and wreak environmental havoc or a gray wall preventing a noble species with long roots in the state from ever thriving again.



When the dam was built, the principal impetus was preventing sediment from being washed down the Yuba from hydraulic gold mining in the foothills, clogging the rivers and raising flood risk.

The idea worked: A 2004 study by the US Geological Survey estimated as much as 99 percent of all sediment washed down the Yuba River is deposited behind the dam.




“It was built to maintain debris, and it’s doing a good job of that,” said Yuba County Supervisor John Nicoletti, who points out some of the sediment includes arsenic and other toxic substances.

But for groups like the South Yuba Citizens River League that are concerned about the Chinook and steelhead salmon runs on the Yuba River, Englebright is a hindrance, not a help.

“For SYRCL, we look at Englebright as a major barrier to the Yuba salmon,” said the group’s executive director, Caleb Dardick.

Because of the dam, fish returning upstream to spawn are stalled, and their populations suffer.

In response to a series of lawsuits from groups like SYRCL, the National Marine Fisheries Service released a biological opinion last February on steps that could be taken to improve the fish populations. Though it listed several possibilities, one of them was removing Englebright Dam.

And in response, the Yuba County Water Agency, which relies on reliable river flows for water deliveries and hydroelectric power generation, filed suit last week to throw out the opinion.

Removing the dam would have its own impacts. In addition to the biological opinion’s silence on the toxic sediments, Nevada County officials point out losing the reservoir would be an economic blow.

Dardick’s group has since also filed suit to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has responsibility for Englebright Dam, to comply with the biological opinion.

If the dam isn’t removed, his group contends, there has to be a serious discussion on what else can be done.

“Our focus is on a healthy river,” he said. “We don’t know the ultimate solution.”

But the water agency and others believe previous studies have already showed a way. In recent years, the water agency and corps have partnered with SYRCL and others on habitat restoration along the Yuba, in one case literally below the 280-foot dam.

Greg Pasternack, a professor of watershed hydrology at the University of California, Davis, said what can still be done below the Yuba has both a low cost and high level of probable effectiveness.

Above Englebright, he said, the river still has issues with runoff, temperature and other factors that could make it a questionable habitat for fish.

“There’s relatively little high certainty upstream,” he said. “Not that it shouldn’t be considered, but we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket.”

Citing the suits, corps officials said they’d prefer not to discuss the dam’s current role.

Water agency general manager Curt Aikens said the dispute is over whether the dam is considered a baseline facility, meaning it’s part of the accepted landscape, or something with effects that have to be accounted for in studies like the biological opinion.

“We’re really worried about the effect on Yuba County,” Aikens said.

Ben van der Meer writes for the Appeal-Democrat.


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