After spending decades trapped in the lower Yuba River, endangered Chinook salmon could once again swim the cold pools in the upper reaches of the waterway — staving off extinction and settling a dispute that has lingered for years.

A coalition of agencies announced the framework for a settlement agreement that would reintroduce spring-run salmon, through a trap-and-haul system, into the Yuba River above New Bullards Bar Reservoir. It's potentially a watershed moment for an issue punctuated by disputes that have boiled over into the courtroom.

"If you look at the past 10 to 20 years, fish passage on the Yuba has been an issue for fishery agencies and environmental organizations," said Curt Aikens, general manager of the Yuba County Water Agency. "By coming to a collaborative agreement, we're on a positive path for YCWA's interests and their interests, which tends to eliminate all the litigation and controversy over this."

YCWA committed up to $100 million to the project. The total cost estimate of the project ranges from $400 million to $500 million to more than $800 million. Currently, YCWA is the only entity to commit to funding the project.

In many ways, the proposal represents a middle ground between the Water Agency and fishery agencies in a disagreement over YCWA's responsibility to install fish passage facilities at Englebright Dam, Aikens said.

Englebright — a 280-foot-tall barrier to migrating endangered fish built to hold back 28 million cubic yards of toxic sediment left over from hydraulic mining during the Gold Rush — is the central figure in the debate over bringing endangered fish back into the upper reaches of the Yuba River.

Englebright Dam is a complete barrier to the historic Chinook salmon, steelhead and green sturgeon spawning grounds in the upper Yuba watershed. Conservation groups such as the South Yuba River Citizens League, which opposed the reintroduction plan, and American Rivers have long maintained that fish passage to and from habitat above Englebright Dam is essential to restoring a healthy population of spring-run Chinook salmon.

With the need for a new license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that will define how YCWA operates its power project, there was uncertainty about whether stakeholders would argue for requirements for YCWA to move fish past Englebright and New Bullards Bar, Aikens said.

Under the term sheet released on Thursday, YCWA and the other parties — National Marine Fishery Service, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and California Sportfishing Protection Alliance — agreed that the reintroduction plan would avoid the need to address the issue of fish passage in YCWA's new FERC license.

"As we go forward, this provides us with the certainty that we can accomplish our primary mission," Aikens said. "This will be expensive, but having that certainty is important."

The plan would have no impact on Yuba River flow requirements, water supply to YCWA's customers or operations of the Yuba River Development Project, including water transfers, flood management and power generation, Aikens said.

Under the settlement, YCWA would have no obligation to provide fish passage past the corps' Englebright Dam or YCWA's New Bullards Bar Dam.

Local conservation group opposes plan

While the announcement of a plan to reintroduce salmon into the upper Yuba River was hailed by those involved, one local conservation group spoke out against the proposal.

“We support reintroducing salmon and steelhead to the upper Yuba River watershed to save them from risk of extinction. However, (we) cannot support the plan announced today to truck wild salmon to and from the North Yuba River,” said Caleb Dardick, executive director of the South Yuba River Citizens League, in a statement.

“At an anticipated price tag of $700 million to construct vast concrete and steel facilities in the river and operate a fleet of fish-hauling trucks and boats, trap and haul is a scientifically uncertain means of restoring wild salmon and unsustainable over the long term,” Dardick said.

The primary concern about the truck and haul method is that it bypasses fish around a portion of the watershed and subjects both adult and juvenile fish to the stress of capture, handling and transport. This can lead to a variety of negative consequences, including pre-spawn mortality and behavioral changes that can lead to increasing stray rates, said Gary Reedy, SYRCL’s senior river scientist.

Reedy said more attention needs to be paid to alternative plans. He cited a $3 million feasibility study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, scheduled to be completed in 2018, that will look into the best way to get fish around Englebright Dam.

“This question of should fish be introduced into the upper watershed and how should they be introduced has been going on for 16 years,” Reedy said. “We learned a lot, especially in recent years, but there remain unanswered questions and additional investigations we think are needed before choosing a best alternative for reintroduction.”

“We can’t support this plan because alternatives that may be more sustainable and efficient in the long term have not been fully investigated,” Reedy said.

Plan still being fleshed out

Reintroducing salmon into the upper reaches of the Yuba River will decrease the extinction risk and contribute to a recovery of the population by increasing the amount of habitat available and the geographic distribution of the species, according to a concept plan signed by a coalition of water managers and fishery agencies released Thursday.

The reintroduction program would focus on spring-run Chinook salmon, with a potential program for steelhead.

In the next year, the parties will develop a defined settlement agreement that will flesh out the concept plan in more detail, said Curt Aikens, general manager of the Yuba County Water Agency

The plan is to collect fish at a yet-to-be-constructed adult capturing facility on the lower Yuba River and truck the fish upstream to a release point above New Bullards Bar. The juveniles that hatch in the upper reaches would be collected and trucked back down to the lower Yuba, where the young fish could continue the journey to the ocean.

Aikens said full-scale operation of the plan is likely a decade away.

Englebright Dam: A past of conflict

The Yuba County Water Agency has been dealing with issues related to fish passage over Englebright Dam for years.

Events came to a head last year, when Yuba County Water Agency, along with Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Nevada Irrigation District, state water project contractors and several Yuba County irrigation districts, legally challenged a 2012 biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The 2012 opinion identified dam removal and other fish passage improvements as the preferred approach to improving conditions for spring run Chinook salmon, steelhead and green sturgeon.

The local water agencies argued that fish passage improvements or dam removal would negatively impact water deliveries and hydropower generation.

The 2012 opinion was thrown out by U.S. District Court Judge Morrison C. England. The judge instructed the NMFS to issue a new biological opinion by May 12, 2014, and to not cite the 2012 opinion while preparing the new opinion.

The judge also ordered the corps to continue taking steps to improve fish habitat on the river.

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