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Success on the Yuba!

Posted: 06/28/2012
by Megan Hooker

Last week Pacific Gas & Electric and the Nevada Irrigation Cistrict both filed amended license applications for the Yuba/Bear and Drum Spaulding Hydroelectric Projects. These revised license applications represent significant agreements on flows for the Middle Fork Yuba, South Fork Yuba, Canyon Creek, Fordyce Creek, the Bear River, and a myriad of small streams throughout the Yuba/Bear watershed. This agreement most certainly did not happen overnight. American Whitewater has spent six years putting in thousands of hours and going to hundreds of meetings in the FERC relicensing process in order to negotiate significant improvements for the rivers of the Yuba watershed. While this process is not complete - FERC and the State Water Resources Control Board still need to review and accept this agreement - if accepted, these improved flows will be in place for the term of the new license, typically 30 to 50 years. 

The Yuba/Bear Drum-Spaulding project is one of the largest and most complicated hydroelectric projects in the country. Covering an area that is 30% larger than the state of Rhode Island, this project contains 16 powerhouses, 29 reservoirs, and upwards of 50 river reaches. As you can imagine, it took a significant amount of time and energy just to understand the basic plumbing of this project. We all know that these systems are comprised of much more than powerhouses and reservoirs though. The water in the rivers impacted by these dams is diverted across three watersheds for consumptive uses and to create hydropower. 
Daunting as these numbers may be, we have kept our sights on the fact that the rivers affected by this project go beyond the nuances of the plumbing.  They also happen to be some of the best whitewater rivers in the state of California. Classic runs such as Highway 49 to Bridgeport and Edwards to Purdons on the South Fork Yuba, and Fordyce Creek, are all staples that give California some of the best paddling in the world. This hydro system also encompasses the high Sierra runs on the Middle Fork Yuba and the upper reaches of the Bear River. During the relicensing process we also discovered many new runs that we had only limited knowledge about before, such as the Class V+ Yuba Gap Run and Canyon Creek. 
From the very outset, American Whitewater took the approach that we would advocate for flows on key river reaches that improve how fast flows drop at the end of the spring spill season – a.k.a the snowmelt recession.  We knew from our experience on the Feather River that flows that decrease rapidly during the spring, while frustrating for boaters, can have devastating effects on the ecology of the river. American Whitewater has become an expert and primary advocate for improving snowmelt recession flows on numerous rivers throughout the state. By working with academics and specialists in the resource agencies, we have been able to precisely quantify exactly how fast flows should recede at the end of the spring snowmelt season in order to be protective of biological resources. Because of the support we have cultivated within the resource agencies, we have been able to develop flow conditions that will extend the ramp down to summer base flows by almost a month.  We have also improved flows on the runs that quite often see no boatable opportunity, even in the wettest of years. The uppermost reaches of Middle Yuba, South Fork Yuba, and the bottom end of Canyon Creek will have flows targeted to make these reaches runnable for between 2 days in drier years up to 6 days in wetter years. These flows will also benefit the downstream runs on both the Middle and South Yuba. 
Last but not least, Fordyce Creek, one of the premier Class V boating reaches in California, will see predictable flows in the early summer. These flows will range from 300 to 475 to cfs and last from 3 weeks to a month.  Flows will occur after there is safe access to Fordyce Reservoir, which will typically be in late June or early July.
The outcome of the Yuba/Bear Drum-Spaulding relicensing negotiations is clearly one of the greatest successes of American Whitewater in California. We’ve already gained improvements in access to flow information, and more boating days and a healthier river system will come with the new license. Many thanks go out to those who participated in boating flow studies and other parts of this relicensing.  
There is one person whose tireless efforts and years of commitment to this project made it possible to achieve our restoration goals for the Yuba River. In the 7 years that he worked on this project, Bob Center attended more meetings than any other individual. Aided by his keen intellect and engineering background, Bob understood this very complicated project as well or better than anyone else in the room. Boaters, anglers, swimmers, frogs and hopefully one day salmon, all owe a debt of gratitude to Bob Center for changing the future of the Yuba River.
Dave Steindorf
4 Baroni Drive
Chico, CA 95928
Phone: 530-343-1871