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Posted on: May 16, 2023

Yuba Water partners with state and federal agencies on ambitious Yuba River restoration effort

3 men and 1 woman stand at a black podium with a river in the background.

A framework agreement announced this week between Yuba Water Agency and state and federal agencies details one of the most ambitious watershed recovery efforts in California, which will also safeguard water supplies from the Yuba River for decades to come.

The agreement was announced during a joint press conference held on the lower Yuba River in Yuba County with California Governor Gavin Newsom, California Department of Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, Director of California Department of Fish and Wildlife Chuck Bonham, Cathy Marcinkevage, the assistant regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, and Willie Whittlesey, general manager of Yuba Water.

Yuba Water, CDFW and NOAA Fisheries will partner on a comprehensive restoration agreement for the Yuba River, which includes a unique project to help salmon and other threatened fish get around Daguerre Point Dam in the lower Yuba River.

The collaborative agreement includes major actions to help recover imperiled fish:

  • Construction of a new fishway – a channel resembling a natural river that salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and lamprey can follow to get around the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Daguerre Point Dam to reach more than 10 miles of healthy spawning habitat in the lower Yuba River.
  • Construction of a modernized water diversion at Daguerre Point Dam to supply irrigation water south of the lower Yuba River that will protect fish passing the intake. 
  • Initiation of a comprehensive reintroduction program to support recovery efforts of spring-run Chinook salmon with a goal of returning them to their original habitat in the North Yuba River above New Bullards Bar Reservoir as soon as 2025.

The agencies agreed in principle to the terms, a comprehensive restoration plan and initial funding that will, together, provide the ingredients of a final settlement.

Willie Kathy and Chuck with the signed term sheet

"As I’ve worked with our state and federal partners, I think we’re redefining the way we work together,” said Whittlesey. “Yuba Water Agency is not sitting back, waiting for the regulatory process to define the work we do. We’re engaging with resource agency leadership, looking each other in the eye, and asking ourselves what can we do? What should we do? These discussions are resulting in a new brand of leadership, a new way of thinking and a new way of working together to provide benefits throughout the state."

The parties also agreed to future coordination related to ongoing federal license proceedings for Yuba Water’s existing hydropower facilities and to support the agency’s Lower Yuba River Accord instream flow proposal. That will provide more reliable and consistent river flows, increasing the chances the species will again spawn and rear in the habitat.

“California is taking action to restore vital habitats and return fish to their historic home,” said Governor Newsom. “This is one of many projects this state has been working on and is advancing. This is a big commitment - $60 million project. We hope to get done in the next few years. Permitting will be our principle challenge, but that’s also man-made and so it can be addressed through new actions and new intentionality and determination to get this project actually complete.”

Half of the $60 million committed to this project will come from funding proposed by the Newsom Administration and appropriated to CDFW by the California Legislature for river connectivity and salmon benefits. The other half will be covered by Yuba Water.

Currently, two federal dams built to control the devastating impacts of Gold Rush-era mining prevent native fish species such as Chinook salmon and green sturgeon from reaching their historic spawning grounds in the Yuba River watershed. Daguerre Point Dam (built in 1910) currently allows only limited passage for some fish species and Englebright Dam (built in 1941) is a complete barrier to fish passage to the upper Yuba River watershed. Both dams are owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The agencies’ collaborative implementation of the restoration plan will promote Chinook salmon recovery by improving access to currently limited habitats in the Yuba River watershed. This will be accomplished through the construction of a nature-like fishway around Daguerre Point Dam for volitional passage to spawning and rearing habitat in the lower watershed and by promoting the reintroduction of Chinook salmon into their native habitat in the upper watershed above New Bullards Bar Reservoir through a comprehensive reintroduction program.

Fishway Rendering 1“We all want salmon to be part of California’s future. These actions will help make that happen: They will increase the resiliency of native Chinook salmon to the extremes we are seeing with climate change,” said Jennifer Quan, Regional Administrator in NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region. “Reliable river flows and diverse habitat including access to previously blocked areas help the species adjust to changing conditions. This agreement represents the best of what we can do together when we find common ground.”

The agencies are prepared to hit the ground running by immediately initiating implementation of the agreement with the goal of reintroducing spring-run Chinook salmon in the North Yuba River by 2025. In combination, the actions in the restoration plan represent an unprecedented effort to improve habitat conditions and contribute to the recovery of historic fish runs to this watershed.

“These actions, taken together, will bring a much-needed watershed approach to protecting and expanding spawning and rearing habitat,” said CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham. “We will see the benefits in the form of increased populations of state and federally listed spring-run Chinook salmon and other aquatic species.”

When asked about why this project was being pursued, rather than dam removal, Bonham said, “Not all dams should be removed. Most of our infrastructure is essential, and it still serves a useful purpose, so you get creative.”

“We can either keep these fights alive, which California is infamous for on water, or we can sit down and actually do something,” he added. “I’m in the camp of doing something because I’m getting too old to do otherwise.”

CDFW, Yuba Water Agency and NOAA Fisheries expect to finalize a settlement based on the framework agreement by the end of 2023.

“Yuba Water’s commitment to collaboration and environmental stewardship runs deep,” said Whittlesey. “Today’s historic announcement builds on the success of past partnerships, including the Lower Yuba River Accord and North Yuba Forest Partnership, which show that – when we work together and think creatively – we really can advance our missions of water supply reliability, flood risk reduction and zero-carbon hydroelectric generation while also supporting the needs of salmon and other native fish species.”

A group of people walking down a dirt road with dry grass in the background.

Photo captions

First image: Yuba Water General Manager Willie Whittlesey, Director of California Department of Fish and Wildlife Chuck Bonham and Cathy Marcinkevage, the assistant regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region sign a term sheet for the ambitious Yuba River restoration plan. 

Second image: Rendering of the new fishway – a channel resembling a natural river that salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and lamprey can follow to get around the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Daguerre Point Dam to reach more than 10 miles of healthy spawning habitat in the lower Yuba River.

Third image: Governor Gavin Newsom, Yuba Water General Manager Willie Whittlesey and others walk toward Daguerre Point Dam, the site of a planned fish passage project. 

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