Fish-Related Issues: From Controversy to Consensus: Improving Fisheries Habitat in California’s Lower Yuba River

The 2008 Lower Yuba River Accord has been recognized for its economic and environmental benefits and serves as a testament to collaboration. As a result of this historic settlement, Chinook salmon habitat in the lower Yuba River, especially flow and temperature, is improving.

By Curt Aikens

In March of 2008, California state officials approved the “Lower Yuba River Accord,” a settlement agreement designed to resolve one of the longest-running environmental disputes in California. Two years later, the award-winning Accord is surpassing expectations by providing significant benefits to California’s economy and environment.

This science-based initiative has improved fisheries habitat while ensuring the ability of the Yuba County Water Agency to sustainably operate the Yuba River Development Project for renewable energy generation, water supplies, and flood protection for the people of Yuba County. This is the story of a collaborative strategy that led to a sustainable solution, and how it is providing valuable and even unanticipated benefits.

New Bullards Bar Dam and Reservoir,
The crown jewel of YCWA’s 400-MW Yuba River Development Project is New Bullards Bar Dam and Reservoir, constructed in 1970.

The Yuba County Water Agency

YCWA is in Northern California’s Sacramento Valley, and was established in 1959 to improve flood protection and provide a water supply for the people of Yuba County. A local governmental entity, YCWA has a board of seven elected officials, five of which are locally-elected County Supervisors. Our mission includes power generation, water supplies, flood protection and FERC project related recreation and environmental enhancements.

Yuba County had historically endured devastating floods, due in part to Gold Rush era hydraulic mining practices that washed hundreds of millions of cubic yards of debris into the Yuba River, raising the river’s bed. Over time, as gold mining gave way to agriculture, farmers south of the Yuba River over-drafted the groundwater aquifer, creating a second problem. To resolve these flood risk and water-supply problems, YCWA proposed the construction of a multi-purpose water and power project.

In 1961, Yuba County residents voted 92 percent in favor of YCWA issuing $185 million in revenue bonds to finance the project. The vote was remarkable because this amount was 2.5 times the assessed value of the entire County. The revenue bonds were supported by a 50-year Power Purchase Agreement with Pacific Gas and Electric Company, where PG&E received the power generated by the project in exchange for covering the bond payments, and plant operations and maintenance. Additionally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contributed $12 million for 170,000 acre-feet of seasonally dedicated flood storage space.

In 1966, FERC issued a license for the project and YCWA completed construction on the Yuba River Development Project in 1970. This project features New Bullards Bar Dam and Reservoir, a 645-foot high double-curvature concrete arch dam with 966,103 acre feet of storage.

Other project elements include the 340 MW Colgate Powerhouse downstream of New Bullards Bar Dam, the 55 MW Narrows 2 Powerhouse below the Corps’ 260-foot high Englebright Dam and two small diversion dams, and tunnels to supplement reservoir water supply and two powerhouses into New Bullards Bar Reservoir.

The Yuba River

The Yuba River originates in the Sierra Nevada Mountains as three separate rivers – the North, South and Middle before joining to form the Yuba River. It is a major tributary to the lower Feather River, which, in turn is the major tributary to the Sacramento River. The lower Yuba is designated as the 24-mile reach from the Corps’ Englebright Dam to the Yuba River’s confluence with the lower Feather River. Englebright Dam blocks all fish passage into the upper Yuba River system.

The average annual runoff to the Yuba River is roughly 2.4 million acre-feet. About 65 percent of the runoff stays in the river and flows down¬stream to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and then to San Francisco Bay. Twenty percent is diverted out of the upper watershed by other entities for water supply and hydropower production. Fifteen percent is diverted from the lower Yuba River by YCWA and irrigation districts that provide water to local farmers who raise rice, peaches, plums, livestock and other crops.

The lower Yuba River’s fisheries

The lower Yuba River is one of California’s signature salmon streams. It supports steelhead, fall-run and spring-run Chinook salmon. Spring-run Chinook salmon and steelhead are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, while fall-run Chinook salmon are a federal “species of concern.”

The lower Yuba River is special in California’s Central Valley because it has no hatchery, and therefore provides habitat for self-sustaining wild Chinook salmon and steelhead. By contrast, there are fish hatcheries below Oroville Dam on the Feather River, below Folsom Dam on the American River and below Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River.

The controversy begins

In 1988, a sport-fishing organization filed a complaint with California’s State Water Resources Control Board that the instream flow requirements in the lower Yuba River were not protective of the river’s salmon and steelhead populations. This led to the 1991 release of a “Lower Yuba River Fisheries Manage¬ment Plan,” by California’s Department of Fish and Game which called for higher instream flows to improve fisheries habitat. This plan called for higher New Bullards Bar Reservoir releases, by as much as up to 500,000 acre-feet per year, a significant increase over the minimum instream flow requirements in the 1966 FERC license.

Because the Fish and Game management plan confirmed that the lower Yuba River fisheries were in better condition under current operations than under pre-project conditions, YCWA pointed out that its operations were meeting legal requirements to keep fisheries in “good condition.” Moreover, YCWA was concerned that the proposed flow requirements, especially their timing, could adversely affect project operations, including the water supply for the irrigation districts and for YCWA’s ability to transfer water to meet California’s statewide water supply needs, particularly during droughts. Since the 1980s, YCWA had transferred surplus water to state and federal agencies, cities and irrigation districts around California. The revenue from these transfers enabled YCWA to invest in flood protection efforts, in fisheries studies, in water supply improvements, and habitat restoration improvements. Conservation and fishing groups disagreed with YCWA’s concerns. They argued that higher instream flows were needed to optimize conditions for the river’s salmon and steelhead.

The controversy continued through the 1990s. In 2001, following a series of regulatory hearings and court challenges, the State Board adopted new instream flow requirements for the lower Yuba River.

The new requirements were greater than those specified in the 1966 FERC license, and were based on the State Board’s determination of the minimum flows needed to protect “public trust” resources and beneficial uses, and to support fisheries habitat. YCWA believed these new requirements were excessive, lacked scientific support, and would even be counterproductive for salmon and steelhead protection. For example, the new requirements combined wet, above-normal and below-normal water years into one flow release schedule. This meant that one instream flow schedule would be in effect in nearly all year types, regardless of varying hydrologic conditions.

Ironically, none of the major interests were pleased by the State Board’s decision. Five separate legal challenges were filed, including challenges by YCWA and the conservation groups.

The search for consensus

After nearly 15 years of controversy and frustration with the regulatory process, the YCWA Board of Directors decided to initiate and fund a collaborative process that would strive to resolve the controversy. YCWA called upon the leading stakeholders to develop a new, collaborative strategy. Our approach called for three key elements: (1) increased reservoir releases to maximize fisheries habitat availability (developed collaboratively with state and federal agencies and conservation groups); (2) comprehensively-managed surface and groundwater resources to avoid water-supply impacts from these higher reservoir releases; and (3) a plan for downstream agencies to pay for the water-supply benefits from these higher reservoir releases.

Building a foundation of trust among the parties to encourage innovation in problem-solving was essential to the strategy.

YCWA began by inviting the 17 parties to participate in an interest-based settlement process. The parties included Trout Unlimited, The Bay Insti¬tute, Friends of the River, The South Yuba River Citizens League, Fish and Game, California’s Department of Water Resources, the National Marine Fish¬eries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, seven local irrigation districts and PG&E.

The goal was to create a science-based, consensus-oriented solution to address all of the parties’ respective interests.

The strategy involved three distinct steps. First, we began by building agreement on the science among the various parties. A technical team of biologists and policy professionals spent two years considering the life cycles and habitat requirements of Chinook salmon and steelhead. Engineers, working with the biologists, developed new operational criteria to ensure the project could provide the higher flows under review while still meeting the project’s requirements.

After two years, including an exhaustive review of 20 to 30 years of data and hundreds of modeling simulations, the science team successfully developed a new comprehensive set of flow schedules to maximize instream habitat benefits. After years of controversy, a rigorous and collaborative scientific effort had resulted in consensus instream flow requirements for the lower Yuba River’s salmon and steelhead!

With the principles for the “Fisheries Agreement” in place, YCWA began working with a different subset of local, state and federal agencies, and irrigation districts on two agreements critical to the Accord, the “Water Purchase Agreement” and the “Conjunctive Use Agreements.”

The Water Purchase Agreement called for unprecedented cooperation between state and federal project operations and YCWA to utilize some of the Fisheries Agreement’s higher flows as “transferable” water supplies for statewide uses, under agreed-upon conditions. The Conjunctive Use Agreements between YCWA and local irrigation districts enhanced groundwater-substitution transfer opportunities for the local irrigation districts while establishing a comprehensive groundwater management program to ensure the sustainability of the aquifer and the long-term reliability of local water supplies.

In 2005, with these agreements in place, YCWA initiated the third step – completing the environmental reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act and California Environmental Quality Act, and securing the needed regulatory approvals.

During this review, the stakeholders agreed to test the Accord in real time with two, one-year pilot programs. Both programs were successful. They illustrated how the Accord would actually work and assured the state and federal agencies and conservation groups that YCWA could meet the new, higher instream flow requirements. The success of these two programs, the comprehensive environmental reviews, and the consensus surrounding the Accord’s develop¬ment led the State Board to take actions requested by YCWA and the other parties to approve the Accord in 2008.

Throughout the process to develop, negotiate and implement the Accord, YCWA had an advanced education and outreach program to ensure that influential stakeholders and policy makers at the local, state and federal level were informed about the purpose and progress of the Accord. Due in part to the success of this program, there were no legal challenges to the Accord’s environmental documents or regulatory permits.

A closer look at the fisheries agreement

The Fisheries Agreement is the Accord’s foundation. It is based on a rigorous scientific analysis, which included a full evaluation of the various life stages of fall-run and spring-run Chinook salmon and steelhead.

The biological team began by reviewing the potential “stressors” by lifestage for each species, month-by-month, to establish the best combined flow regime. The biologists were not constrained by infrastructure, flow release capabilities or the project’s operational requirements. Six flow schedules were developed.

Schedule 1 represents an upper bound of optimal flow conditions, meaning those flow requirements that would provide the best habitat conditions throughout the year. Schedule 2 reflects a lower bound of optimal flow conditions, based on the technical team’s difference of opinion about what an optimal flow was during some months. The remaining schedules vary according to the dryness of a given hydrological year. A “Schedule 6” was also developed to represent the minimal flows necessary in case of an extreme drought or critical water shortage year. During such years, YCWA also will provide an additional 30,000 acre-feet of water for fisheries flows by operating an enhanced groundwater substitution program, pursuant to the Conjunctive Use Agreements.

Improving salmon and steelhead habitat

Improving habitat in the lower Yuba River is essential because the Corps’ Englebright Dam blocks all upstream fisheries passage, so these species rely upon the lower river for spawning, rearing and migration.

The Fisheries Agreement included a flow pattern with higher summer flows to maintain cooler river temperatures and stable, higher fall flows for spawning. This regime is different from the natural hydrograph, but provides a more optimal set of conditions for the lower Yuba River.

The consensus flow schedules resulted in minimum instream flows requiring 262,000 acre-feet in an extremely dry year to more than 574,000 acre-feet in a wet year. In most dry years, minimum flows will range from 330,000 acre-feet to as much as 400,000 acre-feet. These instream flow requirements are higher than any previous state or federal proposal (including the State Board order) by an average of 25,000 acre-feet in a dry year to more than 170,000 acre-feet in a wet year.

A new monitoring and evaluation plan

A key provision of the Fisheries Agreement was the establishment of a $6 million “River Management Fund,” financed by YCWA. A “River Management Team” was also created, consisting of representatives from YCWA, NMFS, USFWS, Fish and Game, PG&E, DWR and the conservation groups who are parties to the Fisheries Agreement. Focused on science, the RMT has developed a state of the art monitoring and evaluation program to evaluate the Accord’s results.

The River Management Team guides the efficient expenditure of the River Management Fund to implement a large active research program. Ten Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission staff are performing a suite of fish population data collection activities addressing the adult upstream migration, spawning, juvenile rearing and outmigration life stages of Chinook salmon and steelhead.

Additionally, the River Management Team attracts state and federal grant funds, and works with other research and university teams to undertake extensive genetic assessments, state-of-the-art mapping, bathymetry and flow modeling, and to support various independent geomorphic research projects. The management team maintains a web site,, where research results are available for public review.

Aligning interests: The benefits of collaboration

YCWA’s collaboration with local, state and federal interests, and the conservation groups, created benefits we never fully anticipated, but now realize would have been impossible to achieve without an interest-based strategy.

The Fisheries Agreement has shown immediate promise. In its 2009 draft Central Valley salmon and steelhead recovery plan, the NMFS stated the Accord will “…considerably improve conditions in the Lower Yuba River.”

While it is premature to draw definitive conclusions from Chinook salmon escapement figures (the number of adults returning from the ocean to spawn in their native rivers), the lower Yuba River’s escapement seems to be faring better than the rest of the Sacramento River system. The total number of fall and spring-run Chinook salmon annually spawning in the Sacramento River system declined from a record high (751,882 fish) in 2002 to a record low (31,481 fish) in 2009. The number of Chinook salmon spawning in the lower Yuba River, however, expressed as a percentage of the Sacramento River system, increased from about 3.2 percent in 2002 to 14.7 percent in 2009 – or about an 11.5 percent increase. In 2010, the number of Chinook salmon spawning in the entire Sacramento River system, as well as in the lower Yuba River has increased from 2009, although the number of Chinook salmon spawning in the lower Yuba River continues to represent nearly 14 percent of those that spawn in the entire Sacramento River system. It is important to note, however, that fisheries managers are attempting to determine if this favorable trend is due to increased straying from other watersheds because of more favorable conditions on the lower Yuba River.

Water reliability for irrigation has actually been maintained under the Accord even though water supplies dedicated to instream flow requirements were substantially increased. This was accomplished through an improved indexing system that better matched available water to the instream requirements across the full range of hydrologic year types. Previous systems only used natural runoff of the entire watershed, while the new index incorporates available storage in New Bullards Bar Reservoir with current year forecasts of inflow to the reservoir, which is available for downstream release.

This new indexing metric provides for a better prediction of available water for all downstream needs, including instream flows, and provides enough accuracy to maximize stream flows while maintaining carryover storage for subsequent year drought protection.

The Water Purchase Agreement has led to several of the largest and most successful water transfers in California.

From 2007 through 2010, Accord transfers averaged approximately 155,000 acre-feet of water to cities, farms and the environment. Every year, at least through 2015, YCWA transfers a minimum of 60,000 acre-feet to DWR for fish and wildlife purposes, and up to another 140,000 acre-feet to participating state and federal water project contractors.

As part of those transfers, the Accord will facilitate groundwater substitution of as much as 90,000 acre-feet per year under a comprehensive groundwater management program, designed to protect the long-term sustainability of the groundwater aquifer.

YCWA’s Accord transfer revenues are enhancing environmental resources.

In partnership with the County of Yuba, YCWA embarked on a $78 million bond program to finance the local cost-share for the new Feather River setback levee. This 6 mile-long setback levee along the Feather River is expected to lower water elevations by more than a foot during floods, reducing the flood risk to nearby cities. It also established 1,550 acres for fish and wildlife habitat, and agricultural uses.

The Accord also provides other environmental benefits.

Under the Conjunctive Use agreements, YCWA is administering a $1 million program to reimburse farmers for the purchase and installation of new, more-efficient electric groundwater pump motors – replacing diesel pump engines. This program enables local farmers to irrigate their crops with groundwater when surface water is needed for other Accord purposes. Up to 75 diesel engines are being replaced with electric motors – reducing fossil fuel demands by up to 600,000 gallons of diesel per year and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by up to 7,000 tons per year.


The Accord has been heralded for its collaboration, and more importantly for its economic and environmental benefits.

“Historically in California, water wars have been the most contentious resource battles imaginable,” Linda Adams, Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency told the Christian Science Monitor. “The fact that these organizations were able to come up with an agreement that met all their needs at once is phenomenal…”

The Accord has won a number of accolades.

In 2008, the Association of California Water Agencies awarded YCWA the “Theodore Roosevelt Environmental Award” for Excellence in Conservation and Natural Resources Management. In 2009, the National Hydropower Association honored YCWA with its “Outstanding Stewards of America’s Waters Award” for recreational, environmental and historical enhancement.

“The Yuba Accord repre¬sents a nexus of smart engineering, collabora¬tive partnership, and strategy develop¬ment in the pursuit of a sustainable solution to a complex controversy,” the NHA said.

Also in 2009, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger awarded YCWA and the Yuba Accord the State of California’s highest environmental honor, the “Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award.”

YCWA is developing a new FERC license application for the YRDP. Because many of the Accord’s agreements will run until the license expires in 2016, and some beyond that time, I am encouraged that a scientifically-justified fisheries program is in place, including a dynamic monitoring and evaluation program to identify areas that may need refinement.

YCWA is confident the Accord will be invaluable during the relicensing process, and continue to benefit Yuba County’s economy and environment long into the future. While credit for the Accord is shared by many, it certainly would not have been possible without the vision and support of the YCWA Board of Directors.

Ultimately, I believe the collaborative, interest-based negotiation process deserves recognition for changing the dynamic — earning trust, encouraging innovation, and enabling all of us to produce a durable agreement that benefits multiple interests.

Curt Aikens is the General Manager of the Yuba County Water Agency.

More HRW Current Issue Articles
More HRW Archives Issue Articles

Previous articleA Silver Lining in Declining Solar Prices
Next articleHydro Hall of Fame: Shawinigan-2: Ahead of Its Time and Still Running Strong
Renewable Energy World's content team members help deliver the most comprehensive news coverage of the renewable energy industries. Based in the U.S., the UK, and South Africa, the team is comprised of editors from Clarion Energy's myriad of publications that cover the global energy industry.

No posts to display