Spring-run Chinook salmon could return to their historic spawning habitat on the North Yuba River above Bullards Bar reservoir under a still-developing agreement involving three agencies and three conservation groups. Working together as the “Yuba Salmon Partnership Initiative,” the coalition released a framework for such an agreement today.
When completed, the agreement would create a first-ever “collect and transport” program in California, like those successfully used for decades in Oregon and Washington to move salmon around dams too tall for fish ladders.
The program would return spring-run Chinook salmon and possibly steelhead to more than 30 miles of the North Yuba River. Deep, cool pools on this stretch of the river provide ideal habitat for the species that summers in mountain streams before spawning in the fall. In addition, the agreement would create a program to enhance salmon and steelhead habitat in the lower Yuba River downstream of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Englebright Dam.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), Yuba County Water Agency (YCWA), American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and California Sportfishing Protection Alliance released a “Term Sheet” that will guide negotiations on a binding settlement agreement that would form the basis of salmon reintroduction and restoration programs. The non-binding Term Sheet defines principles for funding and fiscal responsibility, agrees to some limits on potential actions, and anticipates how the partners will seek to address numerous legal and regulatory requirements essential for the reintroduction to happen. In signing the Term Sheet, the partners commit to negotiating a more detailed and binding settlement agreement that they hope to complete by next year. They also commit to the use of a transparent, science-based process that offers opportunities for public input and response in developing the specifics of the anticipated programs.
“This initiative is an ambitious undertaking to restore spring-run Chinook and steelhead to miles of historic pristine habitat in the Sierra Nevada Mountains,” said Charlton H. Bonham, CDFW Director. “This long-term experiment has been successful in several Pacific Northwest states and we hope for a similar outcome in California. A project of this importance wouldn’t be possible without a robust partnership, and considering the state’s unprecedented drought, it couldn’t be happening at a more crucial time for these fish.”
The Yuba Salmon Partnership Initiative seeks to accomplish a major goal set forth in Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s California Water Action Plan. This five-year plan, released in January 2014, spells out actions needed to restore California’s key ecosystems, and bring greater resiliency and reliability to its water resources. Directives in the plan include establishing fish passage around “rim” dams in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada that block historic salmon and steelhead habitat.
Director Bonham added, “Collaboration with Sierra County and other stakeholders will be important for us to ensure this program recognizes their needs.”
The salmon reintroduction program, if implemented as envisioned in the Term Sheet, would return salmon to spawning habitat in the North Yuba River using specially designed collection facilities and trucks. This would allow adult fish to bypass two dams northeast of Marysville: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Englebright Dam, built in 1941 to trap debris generated by hydraulic mining, and YCWA’s New Bullards Bar Dam, built further upstream in 1970 to provide flood protection, water supply and power generation. The program would move juvenile salmon downstream in the winter and spring by gathering them in collection facilities above New Bullards Bar Dam and trucking them downstream past the dams to resume their journey to the Pacific Ocean. The reintroduction effort would focus first on spring-run Chinook salmon. If successful, a steelhead reintroduction could follow. Providing fish access to historical habitat is also a climate change adaptation strategy.
“Reintroducing spring-run Chinook to their historic habitat above dams on the Yuba River has been discussed for decades,” said Will Stelle, NOAA Fisheries West Coast Regional Administrator. “Now this diverse coalition has reached agreement on the key terms to launch a successful program. We have a lot of work still ahead of us, and we will need to stay focused, given the urgency of getting these imperiled salmon back into their native habitat. The YSPI represents a major step forward, and we’re excited to help make it happen.”
The Term Sheet also envisions a program to analyze, prioritize and implement habitat actions in the Lower Yuba River downstream of Englebright Dam. These actions are likely to include improvement of riparian vegetation, measures to restore salmon spawning habitat and measures to improve rearing habitat for juvenile salmonids, including the expansion of side channel and floodplain areas to promote rapid growth of young salmon before they migrate to the ocean.
“Reuniting salmon with their historic habitat into the North Yuba River through a collaborative, voluntary initiative is a worthwhile endeavor that we believe will ultimately benefit our environment, the people of Yuba County and all of California,” said John Nicoletti, Chairman of the YWCA Board of Directors.
YCWA has agreed to pay up to $100 million of total project costs, which are estimated at $400-$500 million, over the 50-year life of the program (2015 dollars). The Term Sheet defines additional commitments by the partners. These include support for various regulatory approvals that the project will require; evaluation of North Yuba River habitat suitability; evaluating collection and transport facilities; development of biological and habitat goals and objectives; and development of an adaptive management plan so that the program can be adjusted based on monitoring results.
The project promises to yield a wealth of scientific information that may aid other reintroduction efforts, other ecosystems and fisheries science overall. Once implemented, it would test whether “collect and transport” programs can contribute to the recovery of Central Valley salmon populations as they have contributed to the recovery of salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest.