Just two weeks after SYRCL issued a notice of intent to file suit against the US Army Corps of Engineers for failure to comply with the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) requirements for protecting Yuba salmon, NMFS unilaterally granted the Army Corps generous extensions on many key deadlines.
Although NMFS’ letter to the Army Corps (see below) characterizes the changes to the Biological Opinion (BiOp) as “minor,” SYRCL and other conservation groups disagree. In response, SYRCL wrote to NMFS (see below) requesting that it rescind the extension letter and meet with SYRCL and other conservation groups.
NMFS’ Biological Opinion, released in February 2012 in response to a lawsuit filed by SYRCL and Friends of the River in 2006, found that two Army Corps of Engineers dams – Englebright and Daguerre Point – on the Yuba River are jeopardizing the survival and recovery of three anadromous fish species. The Biological Opinion required the Army Corps to take specific actions to reduce harm and threat of extinction to spring-run Chinook salmon, steelhead and green sturgeon.
On Tuesday, SYRCL led a delegation including American Rivers, Friends of the River, Trout Unlimited and California Sportfishing Protection Alliance to meet with senior NMFS staff in Sacramento including NMFS’ Regional Administrator Rod McInnis. The delegation expressed their disappointment that NMFS appears to have granted major extensions without analysis of the impact upon the survival of the threatened species.
SYRCL Executive Director Caleb Dardick questioned NMFS about what had changed since last February when they issued a Biological Opinion that set deadlines deemed necessary to meet Endangered Species Act obligations. “The new letter points to nothing that would suggest the threats posed by the dams are somehow less urgent today than they were when the BiOp came out in February,” Dardick said.
SYRCL is particularly concerned about the statement in NMFS’ letter to the Army Corps that says implementation is “subject to Congressional appropriations for Corps implementation,” which sounds more like a “get out of jail free card” that a substantive deadline.
Since the BiOp was issued, SYRCL has been aware of discussions underway between NMFS and the Army Corps, Yuba County Water Agency and other parties in the Yuba River watershed to address perceived inadequacies of the existing BiOp. Apparently, these discussions led not only to the changed deadlines but may even result in the issuance of an entirely new biological opinion, which could eliminate the requirement for fish passage over Englebright Dam entirely. In order to better understand what has been discussed in these meetings to which no conservation groups were included, SYRCL has used the Freedom of Information Act to request all notes, draft letters and other materials from these sessions.
NMFS staff restated their conviction that the Yuba River watershed remains the best opportunity in California to restore wild salmon. All the parties stated their desire to work collaboratively and avoid litigation.
For more information and a copy of the Biological Opinion and other documents, please visit www.yubasalmonnow.org on the resource page.