SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – The National Marine Fisheries Service owes an explanation for why it decided that two dams on the Yuba River do not adversely affect threatened Chinook salmon, steelhead and green sturgeon, three Ninth Circuit judges ruled Thursday.
“The Ninth Circuit said you’re entitled to change your mind, but you’ve got to explain yourself and you haven’t,” said Christopher Sproul, an attorney with San Francisco-based Environmental Advocates. “We think this is an excellent win vindicating good government. If agencies are going to have environmental rollbacks, they can’t do it without good reasoning.”
The case marks the latest turn in a long-running dispute over the Army Corps of Engineers’ maintenance of the aging Daguerre Point and Englebright dams, both built before the passage of the Endangered Species Act.
According to environmental groups, the dams have long posed an impediment to migrating salmon. The over 100 year-old Daguerre Point has fish ladders, albeit crude and aging, over which salmon struggle to swim to reach their spawning grounds. But the 260-foot-high Englebright Dam, built in 1941, has no fish ladders at all and completely blocks fish passage to the upper Yuba River.
Since 2002, the service has considered the Corps’ maintenance of the dams an “agency action” that requires the Corps to comply with federal environmental law that protect threatened species.
As late as 2012, the service found the Corps’ activities were likely to harm salmon populations, but it suddenly reversed course in 2014 when it issued a biological opinion and a separate letter concurring with the Corps’ biological assessment for the Englebright Dam and adjoining powerhouses.
The service basically stopped treating the Corps’ activities as an “agency action,” effectively letting the Corps off the hook for its effect on the environment.
The Corps began consulting with the service in 2000 to improve passage, but salmon populations have continued to decline from their failure to mitigate the dams’ impacts.
In 2012, the service found the Corps’ activities were likely to harm the salmon species, but it suddenly reversed course in 2014 when it issued a biological opinion and a separate letter concurring with the Corps’ biological assessment for Englebright and its abutting hydroelectric facilities.
In 2018, the environmental non-profit Friends of the River lost a federal lawsuit over the service’s opinions on summary judgment.
On Thursday, the appellate court panel of Judge J. Clifford Wallace, Carlos Bea and Michelle Friedland ordered the federal court to take another look at the case.
“FOR argues that the Service acted arbitrarily and capriciously in changing its approach to analyzing the dams’ impact on threatened fish because the service did not provide a reasoned explanation for the change. We agree,” the judges wrote.
They found the service offered no explanation for why it changed its position.
“Given the Service’s failure to provide a reasoned explanation for why it changed positions on whether the continued existence of the dams and the hydroelectric facilities abutting Englebright constitute agency action, the district court erred in finding that the Service’s 2014 BiOp and LOC were not arbitrary and capricious,” their ruling says.
The judges also ordered the lower court to revisit Friends of the River’s claim that the Corps improperly granted licenses and easements to third parties to operate the hydroelectric facilities.
“The Ninth Circuit ruling underscores the principle that still exists in this country – that facts and law matter,” Sproul said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service was unavailable for comment late Thursday.