Dams and Hydropower

PG&E’s Spaulding Dam on the South Yuba River

Unique and substantial opportunities for river restoration come through the process of re-licensing dams in the watershed that have been operating the same way for more than 50 years. Dams that are part of hydropower projects are subject to licenses by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  New licenses will provide enhanced streamflows, more natural flow fluctuations, passage of wood and sediment for habitat, as well as recreational enhancements for dam-effected river reaches, including the South Yuba River, the Middle Yuba River and Canyon Creek.

Dams in the Yuba watershed were originally placed for impounding water for hydraulic mining, and then to attempt to capture sediment resulting from massive hydraulic mining debris flows. Dams were eventually re-purposed or added to provide mechanical and electric power and provide irrigation and drinking water, much of it exported out of the watershed.  In accordance with Federal Power Act, many of these historic structures became part of federally regulated hydroelectric power projects.  Project works owned and operated by Nevada Irrigation District became the Yuba-Bear project, and those operated by PG&E became the Drum-Spaulding project, each getting a 50-year license from FERC in 1963. The other major hydropower project in the Yuba River watershed was constructed by the Yuba County Water Agency and includes New Bullards Bar Dam on the North Yuba River, Our House Dam on the Middle Yuba River and Log Cabin Dam on Oregon Creek, all of which received a 50-year license from FERC in 1966.

Hydropower dams and diversions in the Yuba watershed
Hydropower dams and diversions in the Yuba watershed (click for larger view)

For links to the websites for these projects, information on their relicensing process, and a map of their hydrologic effects in the Yuba River Watershed, go to the Hydropower webpage at the Yuba River Watershed Information System.

FERC licenses specify minimum instream flows below dams and many other project related conditions. The FERC Handbook for Project Licensing describes the Integrated Licensing Process that makes clear that relicensing is meant to be a collaborative process that includes conservation groups.

SYRCL works with a diverse coalition of conservation groups through the process of hydropower project relicensing. Support is provided by the California Hydropower Reform Coalition, and local coordination occurs through the Foothill Water Network. Partners include the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, the Sierra Club, American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, California Trout, Friends of the River, and American Whitewater.  SYRCL and its partner organizations remain actively engaged through the Foothills Water Network in seeking agreements in both the YBDS and YRDP relicensing.  SYRCL also worked with others in response to a potential licensing of a new project at Daguerre Point Dam, and successfully protected the Lower Yuba River and anadromous fish resources from that project.

Dam-licensing processes require collaboration, science, skill and stamina.  SYRCL is committed to this work as a critical means of protecting and restoring the Yuba River.