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SYRCL sues federal government for weakening Yuba River salmon protection
by Dan Bacher
Sunday Jan 13th, 2013 1:26 PM
"NMFS's unilateral extension of key deadlines directly contradicts their detailed opinion issued just last February that Yuba salmon are in jeopardy of extinction unless timely action is taken," said SYRCL Executive Director Caleb Dardick. "SYRCL is asking the court to order NMFS to rescind its letter and reinstate the former deadlines."

Photo of waterfall on the South Yuba River by the Corps of Engineers.
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The South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) on January 11 filed a complaint in federal court against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) seeking to reverse a recent NMFS decision to weaken Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for three species of Yuba River fish: spring-run Chinook salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon.

SYRCL's complaint asserts that NMFS improperly extended critical deadlines for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to implement numerous measures to protect these three protected fish species given their extremely precarious status. NMFS originally imposed the protective measures in a formal decision, called the Biological Opinion, issued in February 2012 in response to a lawsuit filed by SYRCL and Friends of the River in 2006. The measures include study of the means to secure anadromous fish passage past two dams located on the Yuba River, Englebright and Daguerre Point Dams.

In a letter to the Army Corps dated November 27, 2012, NMFS granted the Army Corps more than three year extensions of some of these deadlines - and actually allows the Army Corps to never implement the protective measures if the Army Corps does not secure a special Congressional appropriation.

"NMFS's unilateral extension of key deadlines directly contradicts their detailed opinion issued just last February that Yuba salmon are in jeopardy of extinction unless timely action is taken," said SYRCL Executive Director Caleb Dardick. "SYRCL is asking the court to order NMFS to rescind its letter and reinstate the former deadlines."

On January 9, 2013, the Yuba County Water Agency (YCWA) also filed a related federal court action against NMFS challenging the Biological Opinion. The Army Corps also objects to the Biological Opinion and has requested NMFS to weaken it. In its newly filed lawsuit, SYRCL intends to defend the Biological Opinion against YCWA and the Army Corps' attempts to weaken its key protections.

"Although the Army Corps has claimed that it lacks the means and the authority to implement the Biological Opinion and its original deadlines, the Biological Opinion explained how existing laws and regulations give the Corps the necessary authority and other internal documents point to resources the Army Corps can tap," said Christopher Sproul at Environmental Advocates, lead counsel for SYRCL. "NMFS extended the Biological Opinion deadlines without considering the impacts on the ESA protected fish species, which makes the action contrary to law."

NMFS has expressly recognized that the Yuba River provides one of the best opportunities in the state for restoring salmon and steelhead. 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 about SYRCL, visit http://www.yubariver.org