The Yuba-Bear and Drum-Spaulding Projects

The YBDS relicensing process is the combined relicensing of three hydroelectric projects.

The Yuba-Bear Project (FERC #2266) is operated by the Nevada Irrigation District (NID). The Drum-Spaulding Project (FERC #2310) and the Rollins Transmission Line Project (FERC #2784) are operated by Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). For relicensing, these projects have been combined because of their complex physical interconnectedness.

In combination they include 38 on stream reservoirs, three off stream impoundments, five diversion dams, many miles of canals, 16 powerhouses, 270 megawatts of electrical power generation, and more than 350,000 acre feet of water storage on the Middle Yuba, South Yuba, Bear, and North Fork American Rivers. These are among the most controlled watersheds and basins anywhere.

Current FERC licenses for the YBDS projects were originally issued in 1963 and expired on April 30, 2013. NID and PG&E have operated on renewed annual licenses with the old terms ever since.

The terms of the new licenses will be in place for 30 or more years. The YBDS relicensing is a ground breaking opportunity to better balance the demands on the Yuba, Bear, and North Fork American Rivers with their ecological, economic, and social health at the forefront. In order to continue operating these projects, their owner-operators undertake a lengthy and detailed ‘relicensing’ process with FERC that includes public stakeholder participation by government agencies and acknowledged non-governmental organizations such as SYRCL. The Foothills Water Network (FWN) was formed to coordinate input into the FERC relicensing process of SYRCL and other non-governmental groups.

The collaborative YBDS relicensing process involves frequent, usually day-long meetings between representatives of PG&E, NID, the Placer County Water Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, the State Water Resources Control Board, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. In the past, the process was facilitated by an experienced facilitator and was undertaken by the parties in good faith based on agreements of mutual respect and common interest in balancing the ‘beneficial uses’ of the rivers of the YBDS system in an ecologically and economically sound way.

The collaborative process involved detailed water flow analysis at the numerous points of control in the YBDS system. Every reach of river, reservoir, diversion, and canal is evaluated so minimum water flows can be agreed to for the benefit of the environment, recreation, water supply, and energy generation.

In 2012, agreement had been reached on many detailed points by all stakeholders, but a few critical issues remain unresolved as of 2020. Time is growing short to resolve the few critical remaining concerns. Unfortunately, FERC waived Clean Water Act Section 401 protections for the Yuba-Bear project in April 2020. If agreement on remaining issues, including the 401 conflict, cannot be reached, recourse is still available through a number of upcoming legal and regulatory steps. 

Additionally, the National Marine Fisheries Service will issue a new ‘Biological Opinion’ that may impact the relicensing project. The past Biological Opinion required that endangered Steelhead Trout and Spring Run Chinook salmon be allowed to swim up the Yuba River to their historic spawning habitats in the South, Middle, and North Yuba Rivers and their tributaries.

The Nevada Irrigation District has stated their goal in the Yuba-Bear relicensing is to fulfill its mission to “…provide a dependable, quality water supply, strive to be good stewards of the watershed, and conserve the available resources.”  PG&E’s stated objective in the Drum-Spaulding relicensing is to obtain a new license that will, “…provide safe, economical, and reliable electric generation in a responsible and environmentally sensitive manner.”

Filings by the Foothill Water Network and SYRCL on the Yuba-Bear Drum-Spaulding projects: