Nevada City, CA – The South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) today issued a notice of intent to file suit against the US Army Corps of Engineers for failure to comply with new Endangered Species Act (ESA) requirements for protecting three species of endangered Yuba River fish: spring-run Chinook salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon.
In 2006, SYRCL and Friends of the River sued the federal government to demand better protection for the Yuba’s endangered fish. That effort bore fruit when, in February 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released a formal decision, called the Biological Opinion, finding that two Army Corps of Engineers dams–Englebright and Daguerre Point–on the Yuba River are jeopardizing the survival and recovery of these three anadromous fish species. The Biological Opinion required the Army Corps to take specific actions to reduce harm and threat of extinction to the fish.
Unfortunately the Army Corps has repeatedly stated that it does not intend to comply with these new requirements. Last week the Yuba County Water Agency (YCWA) filed a 60-day notice of its intent to file a lawsuit against NMFS and the Army Corps over the Biological Opinion. Both YCWA and the Army Corps disagree with the Biological Opinion and have challenged it on legal and technical grounds.
“We are deeply disappointed with the Army Corps’ inaction and YCWA’s determination to roll back the Biological Opinion. These two factors combine to threaten the survival of these endangered fish,” said SYRCL’s Executive Director Caleb Dardick.
SYRCL issued a notice of intent to file suit today in order to be able to returrn to federal court in 60 days, should attempts fail to persuade the Army Corps to drop its opposition to the Biological Opinion’s requirements and begin implementing them instead. Along with the notice letter, SYRCL has requested a meeting with the major stakeholders to explore collaborative solutions.
“Although the Army Corps claims that the Biological Opinion requires actions that are outside of their authority, NMFS took care to enumerate the many laws and regulations that give the Corps the necessary authority,” said Christopher Sproul at Environmental Advocates, lead counsel for SYRCL. “SYRCL’s letter of notice is not a lawsuit, and in fact SYRCL is interested in a collaborative resolution that will bring the Corps into compliance with the Endangered Species Act and put Yuba fish species on a path to survival and recovery.”
NMFS has expressly recognized that the Yuba River provides one of the best opportunities in the state for restoring salmon and steelhead. Their Biological Opinion imposes detailed requirements for securing fish passage past Daguerre and Englebright Dams. For example, the Army Corps must commence implementing some form of upstream fish passage past Englebright by March 2014, and must secure long-term fish passage past Englebright by January 2020. They must also secure long-term improved fish passage past Daguerre within five years. The Biological Opinion imposes several other important fish protective measures as well.
“Instead of battling this out in court, we invite the Army Corps and YCWA to work collaboratively with NMFS and SYRCL to restore healthy runs of wild salmon and steelhead that will rebuild California’s fisheries, foster economic development, and create jobs,” said SYRCL board president John Regan.
“The historic Yuba Accord demonstrated how disputes can be resolved collaboratively for the benefit of all interests, and should serve as a model for cooperative approaches to the improvement and evaluation of fisheries habitat,” says SYRCL River Science Director Gary Reedy, who represents conservation interests on the Yuba Accord River Management Team convened and funded by YCWA.
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 historic spawning habitat available to the species by 95%, resulting in substantial population declines. In 2011, fewer than 5,000 spring Chinook returned to the Central Valley, a reduction of over 99% from historical levels. Removing barriers to upstream fish passage is urgently needed to halt this continuing slide towards extinction.
The Biological Opinion finds that the Army Corps’ Daguerre Point and Englebright dams have contributed to population declines for the three species, due mainly to the fact that the dams block the fish from migrating upstream to adequate spawning habitat. Forced to spawn in limited habitat below Englebright Dam, salmon currently suffer from competition for scarce spawning space, disruption of gravel spawning nests, and interbreeding with hatchery strays and other runs. This is diminishing their genetic vigor, resulting in weaker fish stocks. Daguerre Point Dam is a complete barrier to the upstream migration of green sturgeon.
For more information and a copy of the Biological Opinion, YCWA’s notice letter, and other documents, please visit www.yubasalmonnow.org on the resource page.