Drought causes reduction in Yuba River flows

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New Bullards Bar Reservoir (Chris Kaufman/Appeal-Democrat)
New Bullards Bar Reservoir (Chris Kaufman/Appeal-Democrat)

Due to extraordinary and severe drought conditions, the Yuba County Water Agency (YCWA) has planned for an urgent and temporary reduction in Yuba River flows below minimum levels required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).   The South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) supports the plan as a necessary measure to conserve extremely limited supplies of water in New Bullards Bar Reservoir to be used for instream flow needs later in the year.  SYRCL participated in developing the requested change as a member of the Yuba Accord River Management Team (RMT).

The Yuba Accord River Management Team had two special meetings to review hydrological conditions and possible impacts to salmon and steelhead populations from the proposed action and the no-action alternative. YCWA has prepared detailed rationales and a proposal for saving 21,000 Acre Feet of water over the next two months by dropping flows to 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) from the existing and required flow of 673 cfs.  In addition to approval by FERC, the flow reduction requires acceptance of a water right change by the State Water Resources Control Board and a temporary amendment to the Yuba Accord Fisheries Agreement.  The amendment to the Fisheries Agreement required signatures from SYRCL, as well as the three other conservation groups that signed the Yuba Accord: Friends of the River, Trout Unlimited and the Bay Institute.  SYRCL coordinated the conservation group support for the requests.

SYRCL’s River Scientist, Gary Reedy, fully reviewed all these documents and established that YCWA would report monthly to the RMT on progress to implement a strategic plan for limiting water diversions for agricultural needs.  YCWA estimates that agricultural diversions from the Yuba River will be 50% of the normal volume.  Additional water savings will be encouraged from SYRCL and the other conservation organizations.

The plan to save water now for uses later in the season is not controversial. The reduced flows are reasonably protective of both salmon fry in the river now and steelhead that will be spawning this spring.  Reduction of flows at this time follows emergence of salmon fry and precedes spawning by steelhead so no desiccation of eggs is expected. Without greater than normal rainfall this spring, New Bullard Bar Reservoir will be drawn down to minimum pool before the end of summer and conditions in the lower Yuba River will become lethal for spring-run salmon spawning in early fall.  Saved water now will contribute to a lessening of the catastrophe during spawning season.

The storm of February 7-9, although substantial in rain volume, did not extinquish the need for the water conservation measure. FERC approved the temporary flow reduction on February 7th, and the river will be reduced to 500 cfs following the storm flows of this week. The temporary changes to the flow regulation extend only to May 1. Possible management actions following this initial flow reduction may be more controversial, but will be vetted through the RMT where SYRCL will continue to consider all conservation needs, and any special monitoring, assessment or mitigation that should be pursued during this extreme drought.



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