Update on Re-licensing of Dams on the South and Middle Yuba Rivers

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Spaulding Dam on the South Yuba River

SYRCL submitted comments last week to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regarding the Final Environmental Impact Statement on proposed new licenses for two large hydropower projects in the Yuba watershed.  The projects, owned by the Nevada Irrigation District (NID) and PG&E, include dams which divert 70% of stream flow from the South and Middle Yuba Rivers to generate electricity and supply water to southern Nevada and Placer counties.  SYRCL has been engaged in the process of relicensing these projects so that new licenses will minimize impacts to the river’s health and provide enhancements for people and native species using the river.

NID and PG&E’s projects are currently operating on extensions of their original 50-year licenses which expired in April, 2013.  The terms of the old licenses do not address modern understanding of the effects of dams and diversions on the river. New licenses have been drafted with input from state and federal resource agencies, SYRCL and others. The new licenses represent significant improvements to the river, including increased minimum instream flows, more natural snowmelt recession instead of abrupt changes when dams stop spilling, and a variety of additional monitoring activities and recreational enhancements.

However, the new licenses proposed by FERC are not without need for further improvement. SYRCL provided comments to FERC as part of the Foothills Water Network, a coalition of conservation groups involved in hydropower relicensing.  The twenty seven pages of comments submitted to FERC last week on the Final Environmental Impact Statement provided substantial detail to support many points, including the following:

  • FERC has not sufficiently weighed the value of a cold-water trout fishery in the Middle Yuba River, and should yet prescribe additional cold water to the South Yuba River during heat waves.
  • FERC needs to analyze how effects of the projects are changing under climate change.
  • The analysis of cumulative effects from the project is inadequate.
  • The analysis of project effects on salmon and steelhead is inadequate and yet the proposed Endangered Species Act consultation will unnecessarily delay by many years the important improvements to the river associated with the new license.

If left to the existing regulatory process, it may be another decade before the river experiences the benefits of important agreed upon measures such as increased minimum flows. While ensuring that the process is complete, SYRCL is advocating for a streamlined process or early implementation of the measures that will be benefit the river.  For example, re-operating the dams to gradually reduce the rate of flow recession at the end of spill periods, as opposed to a rapid drop in flow, is an inexpensive measure that has profound benefits for native fish, frogs, riparian trees and whitewater recreationists.

“These federally licensed projects have substantial effects on stream flows, water quality, and populations of fish, frogs and other stream biota” said Gary Reedy, SYRCL’s River Scientist. “Considering the scale of these projects and the aquatic resources at stake, the new licenses are the single most important opportunity we face to improve river conditions.”

Caleb Dardick, SYRCL’s Executive Director, added “Hydro-power is a renewable resource of great value, and the new licenses must ensure that it is produced in a manner that protects human activity and the river. These new licenses will be in place for decades so they must secure environmental needs and allow for the re-introduction of salmon to the upper Yuba River watershed.”

Over the last seven years, SYRCL has invested thousands of hours of staff and volunteer time to ensure more natural flows to the river and creeks below dams in the Yuba watershed. In addition to the projects owned and operated by the Nevada Irrigation District (NID) and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the Yuba River Development Project is owned by the Yuba County Water Agency and also undergoing relicensing. For more information, including a map of project locations in the watershed, see the Dam Relicensing page at yubariver.org.

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