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Debris barrier vs. fish: Englebright in middle
Location: On Yuba River, straddling line between eastern Yuba and western Nevada counties.
Named for: Harry L. Englebright, longtime US Representative from Northern California in early 20th century.
Dimensions: 260 feet high, 1,142 feet across. Lake Englebright is nine miles long.
Capacity: 70,000 acre-feet.
Purpose: Hold back sediment and debris from hydraulic mining in California foothills.
Operated by: (maintenance) US Army Corps of Engineers, (water releases) Yuba County Water Agency, with consultation from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Nevada Irrigation District.
Features: Surrounded by hills on all sides, Lake Englebright is home to a marina, several houseboats and is popular in summer for boating and camping. Dam itself is a spill-top dam, meaning water goes over the top during times of heavy rainfall and runoff.
In its origin, Englebright Dam was meant to stop one of the more lamentable legacies of the state's identity: The search for gold and the wasteful, toxic sediments the search unearthed.
More than 70 years later, the dam is seen by some as a barrier to restoring another, less heralded state legacy: Runs of shiny, healthy salmon and other fish between the state's foothills and the ocean.
The future of the dam, built in 1941, could boil down to a choice between those two overlapping functions: A sturdy obstacle for sediment that would otherwise choke the Yuba River and wreak environmental havoc, or a gray wall preventing a noble species with long roots in the state from ever thriving again.
When the dam was built, the principal impetus was preventing sediment from being washed down the Yuba from hydraulic gold mining in the foothills, clogging the rivers and raising flood risk.
The idea worked: A 2004 study by the US Geological Survey estimated as much as 99 percent of all sediment washed down the Yuba River is deposited behind the dam.
"It was built to maintain debris, and it's doing a good job of that," said Yuba County Supervisor John Nicoletti, who points out some of the sediment includes arsenic and other toxic substances.
But for groups like the South Yuba Citizens River League that are concerned about the Chinook and steelhead salmon runs on the Yuba River, Englebright is a hindrance, not a help. "For SYRCL, we look at Englebright as a major barrier to the Yuba salmon," said the group's executive director, Caleb Dardick. Because of the dam, fish returning upstream to spawn are stalled, and their populations suffer.
In response to a series of lawsuits from groups like SYRCL, the National Marine Fisheries Service released a biological opinion last February on steps that could be taken to improve the fish populations. Though it listed several possibilities, one of them was removing Englebright Dam.
And in response, the Yuba County Water Agency, which relies on reliable river flows for water deliveries and hydroelectric power generation, filed suit last week to throw out the opinion.
Removing the dam would have its own impacts.
In addition to the biological opinion's silence on the toxic sediments, Nevada County officials point out losing the reservoir would be an economic blow.
Dardick's group has since also filed suit to force the US Army Corps of Engineers, which has responsibility for Englebright Dam, to comply with the biological opinion.
If the dam isn't removed, his group contends, there has to be a serious discussion on what else can be done.
"Our focus is on a healthy river," he said. "We don't know the ultimate solution."
But the Water Agency, and others, believe previous studies have already showed a way. In recent years, the agency and corps have partnered with SYRCL and others on habitat restoration along the Yuba, in one case literally below the 280-foot dam.
Greg Pasternack, professor of watershed hydrology at the University of California, Davis, said what can still be done below the Yuba has both low cost and high level of probable effectiveness.
Above Englebright, he said, the river still has issues with runoff, temperature and other factors that could make it questionable habitat for fish.
"There's relatively little high certainty upstream," he said. "Not that it shouldn't be considered, but we shouldn't put all our eggs in one basket."
Citing the suits, corps officials said they'd prefer not to discuss the dam's current role.
Agency General Manager Curt Aikens said the dispute is over whether the dam is considered a baseline facility, meaning it's part of the accepted landscape, or something whose effects have to be accounted for in studies like the biological opinion.
"We're really worried about the effect on Yuba County," Aikens said.
CONTACT Ben van der Meer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 749-4786. Find him on Facebook at /ADbvandermeer or on Twitter at @ADbvandermeer.
Meanwhile, in Nevada County
For a county as much tied into the future of Englebright Dam and Lake Englebright as Yuba County is, in Nevada County discussion of the dam's final fate stirs barely a ripple.
But if people don't believe removal could happen, there are still reasons to take notice, said Hank Weston, the Nevada County supervisor who represents the portion encompassing his county's side of the lake.
"When it was put in, a whole new economy built up around it," said Weston, who has represented eastern Nevada County since 2006. "If you really were talking about eliminating it, my guess is there would be a lot of concern."
From a Nevada County perspective, the dam's importance isn't so much as a debris backstop or barrier to fish passage, but as the key component of a recreational and economic asset to the county.
Especially during summer, thousands of people both locally and from outside the area visit the lake for boating, camping, water skiing and houseboat rentals. A few even live on the lake year round.
Such considerations need to be included when there are discussions about the dam's fate, said Brian Foss, Nevada County's planning director.
"It's not only a natural resource benefit. There are social and economic impacts as well," he said.
The environmental factor, the one discussed the most, also has a Nevada County tie: That's where the South Yuba River Citizens League, the not-for-profit group agitating for improving fish populations, calls home.
But though the group has gone to court to compel federal agencies to follow a National Marine Fisheries Service opinion suggesting dam removal as an option, the group's position isn't so simple, said Executive Director Caleb Dardick.
"To us, it's not about dam removal," he said. "It's about fish passage."
Like Weston, Dardick said comprehensive studies, with good science, are the key.
As long as economics is taken into account too, Weston and Foss said.
"I look at it this way," said Weston, adding he has worked with SYRCL on other issues and is sensitive to their concerns. "What do you accomplish by tearing it down? And what does that do economically?"
— Ben van der Meer
Who's Who on Yuba River
Here's a guide to the entities mentioned the most in the Englebright debate:
Yuba County Water Agency: Based in Marysville, operates water releases for Englebright as well as Daguerre Point and Bullards Bar dams. Negotiates water transfers from Yuba River to other entities, mostly water districts for farming, down south. After 2016, will receive revenue from hydropower on Yuba River.
National Marine Fisheries Service: Federal agency charged with stewardship of living US marine resources and their habitat, both along oceans and in rivers and streams. Mission includes helping recover endangered marine species such as the Chinook and steelhead salmon on the Yuba River.
South Yuba River Citizens League: Based in Nevada County, environmental group focused on restoring fish species in the Yuba and improving the overall river ecosystem. Also advocates for increased public access to the river.
United States Army Corps of Engineers: Federal agency charged with overseeing levees and other flood protection measures, including operation and maintenance of Englebright Dam. Sacramento division is directly responsible for Englebright.