Agencies' dispute threatens water supplies

Issue Date: April 11, 2012
By Kate Campbell
Farmer Al Lassaga of Wheatland notes that the fish ladder at Daguerre Point Dam on the Yuba River, foreground, has been modified to improve fish passage. The dam prevents mining debris from washing downriver and provides a diversion point for irrigation water that Lassaga and other farmers depend on.
Photo/Kate Campbell
Englebright Dam on the Yuba River holds back hydraulic mining sediment and provides flood protection, hydroelectric power and recreational opportunities. A biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service recommends a number of changes to the dam’s operation, up to and including its eventual removal.
Photo/Yuba County Water Agency

Sandwiched between two powerful federal agencies over fish passage beyond Yuba River dams, local farmers and ranchers say they're frustrated by the dispute and worried about the potential impact on water supplies.

A recent biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service recommended a number of changes, up to and including the eventual removal of Daguerre Point and Englebright dams.

The Yuba County Water Agency, which supplies water to eight irrigation districts or water companies in the area, sent a 12-page letter to the fisheries service at the end of February, outlining its concerns about the draft biological opinion related to continued operation of the dams by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Daguerre Point and Englebright dams are maintained and operated by the corps to provide flood protection to cities, to prevent debris from Gold Rush-era mining from damaging the river channel and fish habitat, and to supply irrigation water to about 100,000 acres of cropland.

"This is a case of the federal agencies butting heads and the locals getting pulled into it," said rice and almond farmer Steven Waltz of Wheatland.

In a letter to NMFS, Yuba County Water Agency General Manager Curt Aikens said, "it appears parts of the draft opinion are factually incorrect, internally inconsistent, or based on unsupported opinion rather than the best available scientific and commercial evidence."

The draft opinion appears to have "morphed" from analysis of continued operation of the dams to include all the ills in the watershed, and it concludes the corps has to mitigate for everything, Aikens said.

Among other things, NMFS called for the corps to take extensive actions to improve fish passage at Daguerre Point Dam and to provide fish passage for the first time ever at Englebright Dam. NMFS broadly interprets the corps' operations and maintenance of the dams as jeopardizing the existence of spring run chinook salmon, steelhead and green sturgeon and their habitats in the Yuba River watershed.

Built in 1941 to prevent hydraulic mining sediment contaminated with mercury from washing downriver, Englebright Dam also provides flood protection and hydroelectric power. Daguerre Point Dam was built in 1906, also to prevent mining debris from fouling waterways. Both dams are federally owned and managed by the Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District.

Farmers and local water authorities said the dispute between the two federal agencies leaves them in limbo.

"Flood protection, farming and recreation are essential to our economy," said Mary Jane Griego, chair of the Yuba County Water Agency board of directors. "It is unfortunate NMFS chose to direct the corps to take actions that could impact these essential activities without considering their related social, economic or even environmental consequences."

In addition, water agency officials said, the changes outlined in the NMFS biological opinion threaten the historic 17-party Yuba River Accord, a complex framework of agreements for providing higher minimum stream flows for fisheries in the lower Yuba River while maintaining adequate water supplies for communities and agriculture.

"The reason we're complaining about the lack of NMFS consultation with stakeholders is that we received the draft (biological opinion) 24 hours before it went final," said county water agency project manager Geoff Rabone. "This opinion has now become a legal requirement."

Al Lassaga, who grows rice and raises cattle in the Wheatland area, depends on water from the Brophy Water District in southern Yuba County, which is a member of the YCWA served by its south canal. The changes called for in the NMFS biological opinion would greatly impact the small irrigation district's operations, he said.

"We're where the rubber meets the road," Lassaga said. "These agencies have no economic investment in these decisions. They operate on the public's money and at the end of the day, they go home."

About a third of Yuba County Water Agency water deliveries go through the south canal, and the diversion point is behind Daguerre Point Dam. A change in river level or flows would change the ability to divert about 350,000 acre-feet of water, which would have a huge impact on farming and the local economy.

"We cannot sustain agriculture in south county without surface water," Lassaga said. "We were depleting our groundwater and that cannot continue."

Next steps in the situation will be by the federal agencies, said Tib Belza, a Browns Valley rice farmer and a YCWA director.

"This throws a lot of things in the air," he said. "If we have to litigate over this we will, but that's the old model. It's not the way we do things anymore. We've proven in the past 20 years that it's more successful for everybody, including the fish, if we come to environmental issues through a collaborative approach."

What Belza called a "heavy-handed, top-down approach," is an old way of doing business, he said.

"It's not the way to get things done anymore. But, right now we don't know what the next steps will be," he said.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.