Federal Judge Imposes Deadline on Issuance of New Biological Opinion Concerning Army Corps’ Duty to Protect Yuba River Salmon

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Nevada City, CA – Last week, in a lawsuit brought by the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) and Friends of the River, Federal Judge Morrison C. England, Jr. ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) — see below — to issue a new biological opinion by May 12, 2014.  The new biological opinion would evaluate how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ operation and maintenance of Englebright and Daguerre Point Dams affects Yuba River salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

SYRCL and Friends of the River argued in court that the current Biological Opinion, issued in February 2012 as a result of their 2006 lawsuit demanding better protections for the Yuba’s endangered fish, should be implemented without delay. The NMFS’ 2012 BiOp found that Englebright and Daguerre Point Dams jeopardize the survival and recovery of the three anadromous fish species. This is due mainly to the fact that the dams block the fish from migrating to and from upstream spawning habitat. NMFS’ BiOp required the Corps to implement a comprehensive suite of measures to reduce the risk of extinction including near and long-term fish passage.

The Corps, joined by Yuba County Water Agency, promptly commenced a concerted campaign to force NMFS to rescind the 2012 Biological Opinion and agree not to impose nearly all of its fish protective measures. Bowing to this pressure, NMFS agreed in April 2013 to issue a new biological opinion that will supersede the 2012 opinion.

NMFS sought an open-ended amount of time to write the new biological opinion, but Judge England granted SYRCL’s and Friends of the River’s request that NMFS be ordered to issue its new opinion by May 2014, ensuring that NMFS cannot drag out the process of writing a new opinion while leaving the fish in limbo.

“Although the Judge did not vacate the 2012 BiOp, his ruling allows the Corps to continue to ignore most of the measures that NMFS determined were necessary to avoid jeopardizing the fish species’ existence and recovery,” said Caleb Dardick, SYRCL’s Executive Director. “On the other hand, we won a significant victory in the Court’s order setting a firm deadline for a new biological opinion.”

Environmental leaders expressed deep concern that the Army Corps seeks to persuade NMFS to exclude consideration of Englebright Dam’s impacts on the listed species in the next biological opinion.  Excluding Englebright could mean that efforts to provide fish passage to the upper watershed might not be considered in the new opinion.  Activists pledged to remain diligent and involved to ensure the new biological opinion preserves the hard-won protections of the 2012 Biological Opinion.

“Conditions have not changed for salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon on the Yuba River that would have warranted a new biological opinion, which will be the fifth one since 2002. The dams and water diversions are still in the same condition and are still harming the fish the same way as NMFS correctly concluded in their 2012 Biop. It is disconcerting that NMFS appears to be bending to pressure from powerful outside interests, rather than respecting its own science,” said Friends of the River’s Executive Director Bob Center.

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. Recently, fewer than 5,000 spring Chinook returned to the Central Valley, a reduction of over 99% from historical levels. Providing fish passage at Englebright and Daguerre dams is urgently needed to halt this continuing slide toward extinction.

For more information and a copy of the 2012 Biological Opinion and other documents, please visit www.yubasalmonnow.org on the resource page. For more information about SYRCL or Friends of the River, visit www.yubariver.org and www.friendsoftheriver.org.

Founded in 1983, the South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL, pronounced ‘circle’) is a public-benefit organization based in Nevada City, CA with a mission to unite the community to protect and restore the Yuba River watershed. 

Friends of the River was founded in 1973 during the struggle to save the Stanislaus River from New Melones Dam and is California’s only statewide river conservation organization. FOR is nationally recognized as an authority on the adverse impacts of dams on rivers and ecosystems. Friends of the River protects and restores California Rivers by influencing public policy and inspiring citizen action.

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