Conservation Groups File Suit to Save Yuba River Salmon and Steelhead
State Water Resources Control Board leaves no option but the courts in efforts
6/18/2001 -- -- Monday, June 18, 2001
ALBANY, CALIF. – The nation’s largest coldwater fisheries conservation organization today joined with local conservation groups filing suit in California State Superior Court in what amounts to a last-ditch effort to save of one California’s most valuable fisheries. Trout Unlimited joined with four groups (the South Yuba River Citizens League, Friends of the River, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, and The Bay Institute) in litigation against the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), charging that the Board’s recently announced management decisions regarding water allocations in the Yuba River would irreversibly damage the river’s endangered salmon and steelhead populations, as well as its popular trout fishery.
The Yuba, a major tributary of the Feather River in the Sacramento River system, drains the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Range. The lower river supports one of the Central Valley’s only remaining self-sustaining steelhead trout populations, as well as one of its last wild chinook salmon runs. Both stocks are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The lower Yuba is also an extremely popular fly fishing destination for its vibrant rainbow trout population, hosting thousands of anglers every year.
Today’s court action focuses on the SWRCB’s decision – announced in March of this year – calling for dramatically reduced river flows in the Yuba that dwarf flow levels recommended by the California Dept. of Fish and Game, various other agencies, and several conservation groups. The SWRCB governs water allocation and diversions for out-of-stream use, in the Yuba’s case primarily irrigation for agriculture, out-of-basin water transfers and extremely limited hydroelectric production potential.
"With this decision, the SWRCB is prioritizing away the protection of endangered fish,” Maureen Rose, energy representative for Friends of the River said. “And the Board has yet to provide evidence that the uses producing revenue for the water agencies - such as minimal power production, irrigation deliveries and out-of-basin transfers - justify the cost of jeopardizing the fishery."
The SWRCB’s March final decision – which dictates in-stream water levels that were actually adjusted downward from a previous draft – allows for flows in the Yuba as low as 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) for the next five years. Flows that low would likely result in major fish kills, dry spawning grounds, fatally high water temperatures and countless other harmful conditions for trout and salmon. The CDFG and all other fisheries agencies recommended “minimum” flows more than FOUR TIMES GREATER than that level for the same time.
“We understand the critical need for every drop of water in the state - especially in the face of a dry year cycle - and the need for balance among the interests competing for it,” said Chuck Bonham, California hydropower coordinator for Trout Unlimited. “We’re accustomed to seeing the state’s fisheries shoulder more than their share of the load, and we’re accustomed to working with that. But a decision to effectively dry up the Yuba – along with its wild fish - goes well beyond the pale in terms of acceptable sacrifice. We can’t allow these fish to disappear on a whim.”
The five conservation groups, along with 10 other parties including the National Marine Fisheries Service, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the California Department of Fish and Game filed petitions earlier this year with the SWCRB following its March decision asking it to reconsider its flow regimes for the Yuba. All petitions were denied. A slowly moving settlement process convened by CDFG and attended by Trout Unlimited shows little promise for a satisfactory outcome in time to prevent serious damage to the resource.
"We remain frustrated because it has taken over 12 years for the Board to reach a final decision, and when it did it failed to sufficiently consider over 12 years of data supporting higher flows for fishery benefit," said Jerry Mensch of California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, one of the organizations that filed a complaint with the Board in 1988 over Yuba River conditions.
“The conservation partners in this action and the other agencies involved all have followed the rules and used every available outlet to inject some balance and some sense into this plan,” said Larry Sanders, RiverLaw director (affiliate of SYRCL). “But the SWRCB has shut us all down at every turn. Sadly, the Yuba’s fishery has no option left but the courts.”
Contact: Chuck Bonham, TU California Hydropower Coordinator: 510-528-4164
Gary Bobker, The Bay Institute: 415-721-7680
Jerry Mensch, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance: 916-363-4021
Maureen Rose, Friends of the River: 916-442-3155 ext.217
Janet Cohen, South Yuba River Citizens League: 530-265-5961