Despite economic uncertainty and a historic statewide deficit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Newsom has signed a 2020-21 state budget at the end of June that includes a critical provision that bolsters protections for California’s rivers against federal dismantling of the Clean Water Act.
Over a hundred federally managed dams need new licenses to operate in California, yet over the course of the past year, the federal government has taken significant action to dismantle Clean Water Act protections that would otherwise apply to these dams. Relying on a controversial 2019 court decision (Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has issued five orders waiving state water quality certifications in California in the past year, two of which are in the Yuba River watershed. Just last month, FERC issued a new hydropower license on the Middle Fork of the American River, making this the first state-owned hydroelectric dam without any Clean Water Act protections.
Without section 401 water quality certifications, these dams will operate exclusively to generate electricity and lack adequate water quality measures to protect California’s rivers and threatened fish until the next relicensing period in another 40 to 50 years. Emergency action was needed as California continues to face a wave of federal licenses due this summer and into the next year.
Recognizing the urgency and severity of the issue, Governor Newsom and the California Legislature suspended procedural barriers for water quality certifications in a budget trailer bill to help California impose much-needed water quality protections for the remaining federal dams undergoing the FERC relicensing process. By including this in the state budget, Governor Newsom and California Legislature ensured that this would be addressed immediately, rather than waiting until later in the legislative session – or possibly next year – and risk losing protections for countless rivers throughout California.
While our work on this issue is not over yet, we applaud Governor Newsom and the California Legislature for taking much-needed action to resolve this crisis for future dam licenses and protect the waters we drink, swim, and fish.
To join the South Yuba River Citizens League (home of the Yuba River Waterkeeper) in its Call to Action to reverse the recent FERC waivers issued in the Yuba and Bear River watersheds, click here.
Policy Manager Kaitlyn Kalua represents CCKA and its member Waterkeepers in state regulatory and legislative forums to advance statewide water policy.