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Posted on: December 12, 2018

Yuba Water Agency, Brown administration strike deal to benefit fish, farmers and Bay-Delta

Fish habitat restoration on the lower Yuba River

Yuba Water Agency announced its support for the Brown administration’s comprehensive restoration strategy to improve fish and wildlife habitat conditions in the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary watershed. The administration’s strategy, which includes fisheries restoration measures on the lower Yuba River, will be considered by the State Water Resources Control Board during its meeting today.

“Our proposal for the lower Yuba River includes releasing more flow to the Delta, habitat restoration, and new funding to improve conditions for salmon and steelhead,” said Brent Hastey, Yuba Water Agency Board Chairman. “After working with state and federal agencies and local farmers on these agreements for several years, we believe these measures will achieve the coequal goals of water supply reliability and ecosystem protection.”

The Brown administration strategy is based on 15-year voluntary agreements with water agencies to protect the Bay-Delta watershed, as an alternative to burdensome regulatory requirements. The Yuba Water Agency restoration proposal builds on the collaborative, science-based 2008 Yuba Accord, which is widely considered a model for integrated watershed management. The voluntary agreement would recognize that the Yuba Accord continues to improve conditions for salmon and steelhead, reduces the flood risk for the people of Yuba County, ensures water certainty for local farmers and ranchers, as well as for Yuba Water Agency’s hydropower generation needs, and provides critical water supplies for cities and farms throughout California.

Yuba Water Agency’s proposed commitments to the Brown plan are significant. These include releases of water from New Bullards Bar Dam of up to 50,000 acre-feet annually for fisheries, the restoration of up to 100 acres of habitat at a cost of up to $10 million, and an annual $520,000 contribution for a new Bay-Delta watershed science program. Under this innovative agreement, Yuba Water would receive compensation for water releases that contribute to Delta inflow and outflow, providing critical funding to reduce flood risk in Yuba County – an estimated $80 million over the term of the agreement.

The state water board is in the process of updating the Water Quality Control Plan for the Bay-Delta. The purpose of this plan is to establish water quality control measures that provide reasonable protection of beneficial uses in the greater Bay-Delta watershed, which includes all of the Sacramento Valley and portions of the San Joaquin Valley.

State water board staff previously proposed flow requirements for rivers that feed the Delta based on a percentage of “unimpaired flows,” which would require a large portion of each watershed’s total inflow to be dedicated to flow out of the Delta. This “unimpaired flow” approach would have significant impacts on farms, California communities and the environment. Scientists at the University of California, Davis, and researchers with the Public Policy Institute of California, cautioned publicly that the state board staff’s flow proposal would not address key factors critical to the Delta’s ecosystem health, such as food and habitat availability, or predation by other species.

The Brown administration and water suppliers throughout California noted that the proposed restoration strategy, based on voluntary settlement agreements, represents a more complete, comprehensive conservation initiative to improve fish and wildlife habitat. Negotiated voluntary agreements will allow for the integration of measures beyond just flow requirements, which will benefit both water supply and ecosystem management, and ensure restoration work begins sooner.

Yuba Water Agency is one of several agencies dedicated to implementing actions for struggling fish populations. Project examples include restoring gravel beds for salmon spawning, restoring side channel rearing habitat for juvenile salmon, closing deep pools left over from mining operations that harbor predators, and improving the timing of river pulse flows to better suit fish migration. Many of these actions are designed to address damage caused over a century ago by Gold rush-era hydraulic mining operations.

As Yuba Water Agency works to finalize a voluntary agreement with local, state and federal stakeholders, the agency is developing additional measures proven to facilitate a beneficial interaction between land and water that fish experience in natural flow conditions. These measures will be based on the science developed in part by the Yuba Accord’s science program, through which the Yuba Water Agency has funded $5 million in studies. The agency continues to fund $500,000 each year for further science studies.

Water agencies are hopeful the state water board will embrace the Brown administration’s restoration strategy during the meeting today. Over the next year, the board would then review and evaluate the proposed strategy, and eventually adopt it as a more complete approach for improving species habitat in the Bay-Delta ecosystem.

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