Our View: Surely, more room left for Yuba River water talks
The Lower Yuba River has gone from controversy to consensus and back, again.
We're hoping that, long term, when it comes to the source for our oldest and frequently most dramatic cultural conflicts — water — we evolve a system based less on adversarial representation and more on collaboration.
We're hoping, but we're not holding our breath. Two federal lawsuits recently were filed in Sacramento, one supporting and one challenging a biological opinion by the National Marine Fisheries Service regarding Englebright and Daguerre Point dams on the Yuba River.
Yuba County and area residents should take note. The dams affect public safety, environmental health and even much-needed revenues.
What's troubling is that the parties to the lawsuits, and 15 others, participated in or supported the landmark Lower Yuba River Accord in 2008. After more than two decades of lawsuits and disputes, the collection of diverse groups came together and signed off on a fisheries agreement, water purchase agreement and more. Progress seemed to have been made through a collaborative process.
The accord was lauded by national organizations of varying interests and backgrounds and was a 2009 recipient of the Governor's Environmental and Economic Leadership Awards.
The accord was supposed to last through at least 2016.
So where and how did things go wrong in just a four-year period? From cooperation back to litigation, where most "water war" issues end up?
As reported, the Yuba County Water Agency sued Jan. 9 to throw out the latest biological opinion, which includes a recommendation for the US Army Corps of Engineers to possibly remove Englebright, among other steps to foster salmon and sturgeon species health.
Two days later, the South Yuba River Citizens League filed suit, seeking adherence to the Fisheries Service's opinion.
In a meeting with Yuba County Water Agency officials, one message was that cooperative measures were exhausted. They simply believe that the NMFS opinion is misleading and based on faulty science. And the NMFS isn't listening to reason.
"We've tried to proceed in collaborative fashion for a long time," Water Agency general manager Curt Aikens told us.
It almost seems that the NMFS wants to force the issue back into court, rather than take responsibility for helping hash things out (our opinion).
As a refresher, Englebright holds back Gold Rush-era mining debris and sediment, helps the agency control and transfer irrigation water, and, perhaps most importantly, dictates flow control to help prevent downriver flooding.
Removal of Englebright or other flow adjustment restrictions could also handicap the water agency's ability to bring in hydroelectricity revenue starting in 2016.
The problem with court cases is that they concentrate on picking a winner and a loser. Sure, judges can dictate cooperative action.
But, still, they tend to emphasize the negative. And they take a long time. And cost a lot of money.
We think that Aikens and his organization make good points. But we'd rather not have to pick sides.
We believe that the concerns of all stakeholders are important, whether based on life sciences, economics or public safety. The dams are clearly important to human populations; they're important to the down-river ecology. And fisheries are just as important down there as are irrigated crops up here.
The good news is that Aikens and SYRCL executive director Caleb Dardick acknowledge that entering the legal realm doesn't mean the situation will be decided in court. They say they're willing to reassess the biological opinion if it means having everyone on the same page.
The accord was accomplished when the setting moved from the courtroom to the negotiating table.
Isn't that still a possibility? We hope so, because much too often, when it comes to water, contingencies worry more about winning than about making things better.