Local river protection groups and a state regulator are protesting what they say is the Nevada Irrigation District’s attempt to circumvent federal law.
At issue is the licensing renewal process for NID’s Yuba Bear hydroelectric project – which includes French, Faucherie, Sawmill and Bowman lakes and Rollins Reservoir, as well as four generating stations (Bowman, Dutch Flat, Chicago Park and Rollins) .
The legal wrangling all stems from a recent federal court ruling over the Klamath River and California and Oregon’s regulatory authority over water projects on that river. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Hoopa Valley Indian Tribe, which was reportedly weary of endless delays in dismantling a series of dams on the Klamath.
The Federal Court ruled that a common practice by state water boards of allowing water agencies to continually withdraw and resubmit their applications to circumvent a one-year deadline was invalid and meant that they had lost their regulatory authority over the project.
Whether this court ruling in this specific case has anything to do with other water projects and water districts is up in the air – and this ambiguity is being challenged on a number of different fronts.
The Nevada Irrigation District is arguably at the forefront of the battle. The local water district is the first California water agency to ask whether this ruling means California no longer has regulatory jurisdiction over whether it meets federal legal water quality requirements.
Opponents of the move, including the State Water Resources Control Board, see a dangerous precedent and a deliberate effort to circumvent federal water quality law and California’s environmental quality law. The water district, however, says its request is simply an attempt to clarify the decision.
“The NID endangers the health of the Yuba River watershed and jeopardizes years of collaboration among stakeholders,” said South Yuba Citizens League Executive Director Melinda Booth. “Their course of action could…undermine environmental protections of waterways nationwide.”
NID Claims Decision Clear
The federal court’s decision was not limited to the parties in this particular case, NID Deputy General Manager Greg Jones said in an email.
“The view is pretty clear that the state has waived its 401 water quality certification authority when it doesn’t respond to a request within a year,” Jones said. “In the case of the NID, the National Water Resources Control Board has not acted on the NID’s request for more than seven years. The review speaks for itself. »
The Yuba Bear Hydroelectric Project obtained a license from the federal government in 1963, which expired in April 2013. The water district had obtained a series of extensions since the license renewal process began in 2007.
According to Jones, the water district is not trying to avoid the state process. Instead, he asked the federal agency to clarify whether it is still required to have a pending application with the state for its license renewal application to be in good standing. And, Jones said, the district’s letter was triggered by the state water board’s denial of its application in January, which in turn was due to Hoopa Valley’s decision.
NID happens to be one of the first licensees to receive a denial, Jones said, and is therefore one of the first to review how Hoopa Valley affects its pending license application.
“The NID didn’t write their letter…in order to create some sort of precedent,” he said.
Stakeholders fight back
Foothills Water Network and SYRCL then filed a letter of protest with the federal agency, asking that NID’s application not be approved in order to protect the Yuba and Bear watersheds.
According to the letter, which was also signed by 11 other groups, including American Rivers and the Mother Lode chapter of the Sierra Club, the waters district is premature in its request because the decision is still under appeal. SYRCL joined 15 states, numerous tribes and conservation groups in asking the DC Circuit Court to review the Hoopa decision.
The letter also notes that the water board has repeatedly asked the Nevada Irrigation District for a full environmental review, adding, “The ball is squarely in NID’s court.”
The state water board filed a similar letter, asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to “simply refuse to ignore NID’s unsolicited and unwarranted request.”
“NID has voluntarily and unilaterally withdrawn its previously pending requests,” the letter reads. In addition, he said, “the delay…is due to the NID not performing the required environmental scans.”
According to Jones, the water district has completed the federally required environmental impact study and is awaiting federal consultation.
Since 2006, the water district has held more than 250 meetings with interested parties to develop terms for the new license, Jones said. Some disagreements remain, including over the introduction of anadromous fish (like salmon and sturgeon) to the Middle Yuba River and a new trail in the lower Bear River.
A final Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Policy Act was completed in December 2014. It has yet to be reviewed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is expected to receive a draft biological assessment at the end of 2019.
In the meantime, there is no specific timeline for the federal agency to respond to the local water district’s request.
“Our hope is that they will wait until the United States District Court decides whether to hear the Hoopa case again,” SYRCL’s Booth said. “We expect it to be within two to three months.”
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at [email protected]