The largest hydropower project in the Yuba River watershed was approved for operation in 1966, and the 50-year license just expired. Last month, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a notice that the Yuba River Development Project, owned and operated by the Yuba County Water Agency (YCWA), can continue to operate on an automatically renewing annual license until a new long-term license is issued.
The project includes three dams (New Bullards Bar Dam on the North Yuba River, Our House Dam on the Middle Yuba River, and Log Cabin Dam on Oregon Creek) and two main powerhouses (New Colgate powerhouse above Englebright Reservoir and the Narrows 2 powerhouse below Englebright Dam). See this map of hydropower projects to understand where this project is located in the Yuba watershed. Englebright Dam is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers and is not officially part of the project licensed by FERC.
YCWA seeks a new 50-year license to be granted upon completion of the relicensing process. SYRCL and several other conservation organizations, as well as state and federal resource agencies, are involved in the relicensing process to determine what environmental mitigations and enhancements should be included as terms in the new license. Agreement has already been reached on a variety of measures that will significantly improve river conditions. Higher minimum instream flows below dams will expand native trout habitat and improve water quality. New rules for operating the dams when reservoirs are full during the spring will restore elements of the natural flow regime, increase whitewater boating opportunities, and improve habitat for native aquatic insects, riparian trees, frogs and trout. For the smaller of the two project dams, YCWA has agreed to facilitate the passage of wood and sediment which will help restore downstream habitats for trout and other native species.
Unresolved at this point are three major questions: 1) what measures will be taken to stop the entrainment of fish into a large diversion tunnel on the Middle Yuba River; 2) what efforts will be required to improve conditions in the lower North Yuba River where New Bullards Bar dam has completely blocked the supply of sediment and wood; and 3) what enhancements to flow, beyond what was accomplished through the Yuba Accord, will be required for the lower Yuba River as compliment to habitat restoration for salmon and steelhead? SYRCL staff and volunteers are engaged in the relicensing process with an understanding that although it is slow and sometimes frustrating, this is a unique opportunity to improve river conditions and watershed health for the future.
The relicensing process has involved 44 different studies to determine project effects and thereby inform mitigations and enhancements. The study reports can be viewed at YCWA’s relicensing website. At this point, only one study remains incomplete. Because of drought conditions and low numbers of salmon, a study designed to examine the interactions of salmon with YCWA’s powerhouse below Englebright did not meet its objectives. Just last week, state and federal agencies filed comments with FERC asking for more information on this potential project effect. Due to many regulatory steps following resolution of final mitigation and enhancements, YCWA is not likely to receive a new long-term license before 2020 or 2022, depending on the whether the salmon study is extended. SYRCL will be working with other conservation groups to try to expedite this process and see the new beneficial license measures go into effect as soon as possible.
Reintroduction of salmon and steelhead above Englebright Dam and YCWA’s Narrows 2 facility remains a hot topic even though FERC has made it clear that they do not intend make any such requirement for this project as Englebright Dam is the barrier and not the hydroelectric project. In an effort to resolve this issue outside of the FERC relicensing process, YCWA has partnered with willing agencies and non-governmental groups to propose a trap and haul plan for reintroduction to the North Yuba River, a plan which would require no changes to the hydropower operations. (Please see SYRCL’s Yuba Salmon Now webpage for more information on the trap and haul plan and SYRCL’s work to achieve a more sustainable reintroduction plan that restores watershed health.)
More information on the FERC relicensing process can be found at SYRCL’s webpage on Hydropower and Dams.
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