Worth a dam?

Tribe and enviros ‘call back the salmon’ on Yuba River

Yuba River activist Jason Rainey says Englebright Dam has outlived its original purpose.

Yuba River activist Jason Rainey says Englebright Dam has outlived its original purpose.

Photo By Dan Bacher

On July 2, the California Department of Fish and Game officially closed salmon fishing on Central Valley rivers for the first time in history.

Now scientists, community activists and tribal leaders are trying to “call back the salmon” on the Yuba River. To help, they want the government to tear down the Englebright Dam, about 20 miles east of Marysville.

On July 10, the coalition presented its Calling Back the Salmon resolution during the third annual Spring-run Chinook Symposium in Nevada City. The symposium was hosted by the Salmonid Restoration Federation and South Yuba River Citizens League.

The Calling Back the Salmon Committee is based in the Yuba River and Bear River watersheds. The committee’s resolution calls upon the state and federal governments to legally recognize the tribes of the Yuba watershed region and their rights to traditional cultural properties, including the restoration of their salmon heritage. The document also calls for the clean up and removal of mining toxics in waterways and behind dams.

It asks the state of California to acknowledge that current water policies have created a gross imbalance—“one so significant as to threaten the extinction of a keystone species in California’s ecology”—and that actions that allow wild salmon to return to their spawning waters above dams are necessary to begin rebalancing our world.

“We, the undersigned, recognize that apologies only begin the healing process and that through committed actions to work together to restore wild salmon we demonstrate to the Salmon People that we are committed to community healing, preparing the healing of land and water, and are therefore ready to call the salmon back home,” the resolution reads.

Tsi-Akim Maidu tribal chairman Don Ryberg, who opened the three-day symposium with a traditional blessing in the Maidu language, said, “When Indian and non-Indian come together, the healing process starts the healing action.”

The 261-foot high Englebright Dam entirely blocks wild Yuba River salmon and steelhead from returning to hundreds of miles of upstream habitat in the South, Middle and North Yuba rivers. Tribal leaders and environmental activists would like to see Englebright removed as part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing process in 2013 and 2016.

“Englebright doesn’t provide water supply and flood control nor does it serve its original purpose when built in 1941 to capture hydraulic debris,” said Jason Rainey, executive director of the South Yuba River Citizens League. “Although some continue to support the status quo, we need to recognize that when we are talking about the collapse of salmon along the West Coast, the societal balance is now tipped in favor of the fish.”

“When we lost the salmon, we lost the fishing villages, the songs, the ceremonies and methods of harvest that we used for thousands of years,” emphasized Ryberg. “It is a big part of my life to bring the salmon back to the upper Yuba River.”

Salmon populations on the Yuba River have declined dramatically along with other Sacramento River salmon populations, spurring the first-ever closure of the ocean off California and Oregon to salmon fishing this year.

Only 242 spring-run salmon were counted in the Yuba River in 2007. Since dam construction, an average of 15,000 fall-run chinook salmon have spawned in the river, but DFG surveys in 2007 estimated only 2,600 chinooks.

Not everybody supports dam removal. Dave Munro, owner of Skipper’s Cove Marina on Lake Englebright, opposes it because he would be put out of business if the dam was taken down.

“I have been here since 1974,” said Munro. “If the dam is removed, we’re done as a business. And there’s no really good reason to take it down.”

In addition, he said dam removal would lower the property values of lakeside property owners, destroy the lake’s fishery and recreational facilities and hurt the local economy.

“Thousands of people, including employees and customers, depend on the lake being here,” he said.

However, the tribe and conservationists are pushing forward with their plan to eventually remove Englebright Dam to restore salmon and steelhead to the headwaters. “We’re building the scientific, legal and moral case—and the citizen capacity for recovering California’s wild-salmon heritage—starting in the healing Yuba headwaters and flowing downstream through the Golden Gate,” concluded Rainey.