In 2006, Friends of the River sued the federal government to demand better protection for the Yuba’s threatened fish. That effort bore fruit when, in February 2012, NMFS under court order released a formal decision, called a Biological Opinion, finding that the operation and maintenance of two Army Corps of Engineers dams on the Yuba River (Englebright and Daguerre Point dams), jeopardize the survival and recovery of the three threatened fish species. This is due mainly to the fact that the dams block the fish from migrating upstream to their historic spawning habitat. That Biological Opinion warned that the population levels of these three threatened fish species have continued to decline and concluded that they are unlikely to survive if prompt actions are not taken soon to alter this downward spiral. The Biological Opinion required the Corps of Engineers to take a number of actions to reduce the harm being caused to the threatened species, including implementing a program to provide fish passage past the dams by 2020, removing predatory fish at Daguerre Point Dam, adding large woody material and spawning gravel below Englebright Dam, and restoring habitat through removal of rock debris left over from the construction of the dam more than 70 years ago.
Unfortunately, the Army Corps refused to comply with the 2012 Biological Opinion and successfully convinced NMFS to rescind this Biological Opinion. On May 12, 2014, NMFS issued a new Biological Opinion that gutted the environmental protections of the 2012 Biological Opinion. The Corps and NMFS have belatedly agreed that the only Yuba River activities undertaken by the Corps subject to ESA regulation are cleaning portable toilets and maintaining campgrounds and boat ramps on Englebright Lake and rudimentary efforts to keep Daguerre’s poorly designed fish ladders minimally functioning. The agencies now consider the harm to ESA species caused by the Corps’ operating and maintaining the 260-ft Englebright dam and obsolete Daguerre dam as beyond the reach of the ESA. These conclusions reverse the positions the Corps and NMFS held for more than a decade that the dams are part of the Army Corps’ Yuba River “action” – a regulatory definition meaning the dams must be operated to protect endangered species.
Restoring the Yuba River for fish and wildlife by removing or modifying Englebright and Daguerre dams so that salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon can once again migrate into their historic spawning habitat is urgently needed. This would be an historic achievement as salmon have never been restored to any Sierra headwaters since dams were built on every river during the last century, and the Yuba presents an ideal wild salmon and steelhead restoration opportunity in the Sierra.
Spring-run Chinook salmon were once plentiful in the Central Valley, with over 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%, resulting in substantial population declines. In 2011, fewer than 5,000 spring Chinook returned to the Central Valley, a reduction of over 99% from historic levels. Providing fish passage at Englebright and Daguerre dams is crucial to halt this continuing slide toward extinction.