Natalie Hanson

MARYSVILLE, Calif. (CN) — California’s Yuba River, a vital breeding ground for salmon and other fish, could enjoy a new chapter as an expanded habitat under a new $60 million federal and state replenishment project.

Governor Gavin Newsom joined several state and federal leaders at Daguerre Point Dam in Marysville, to announce the new plan to remove obstacles and expand vital fish habitats in the river.

Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said at a briefing in front of the dam that the structure has not evolved since 1910, and is currently a complete barrier to sturgeon and lamprey that need more miles of habitat.

He said that's why his department and other agencies are executing a term sheet, committing to restoring and planning for the river. The project will use $30 million from the state and $30 million from Yuba Water Agency, to fix the dam by building a natural fishway, resembling the footprint of the river before gold mining, to help fish swim up and down stream of their own volition.

The project will also screen water on the other side of the river and ensure diversions meet federal and state criteria. It will also include a pilot project to, by 2025, start taking spring-run Chinook salmon back up to the north fork of the river for the first time in more than 100 years.

Willie Whittlesey, general manager at Yuba Water Agency, said the goal is to reduce the long-term effects from historic gold mining and reduce flood risks while sustaining the agricultural water supply and preventing extinction of fish species.

“We’re announcing one of the most important enhancement projects ever proposed in the Central Valley,” Whittlesey said. “It also represents the first action removing barriers limiting the geographic range of the green sturgeon.”

Sturgeon can live up to 80 years and often butt up against the river barrier, and even 12 miles of new habitat will make a big difference, the leaders said.

Wade Crowfoot, leader of the Natural Resources Agency, said salmon have been harmed by 150 years of development and 1,500 dams and reservoirs, disconnecting them from 90% of their historic habitat.

Crowfoot said the fish need abundant fresh, cold water coming from the Sierra Nevada, and there are few places in the Central Valley where they can expand their habitat due to climate change. He said daytime temperatures reaching 82 degrees before noon are hard for fish to contend with, and climate change makes it urgent to restore conditions that will support future generations of fish.

“If salmon are healthy, that means our rivers are healthy,” Crowfoot said.

“Hotter temperatures like we’re experiencing today mean hotter river conditions, which is a real problem for salmon who thrive in colder water. We need to implement an ‘all of the above strategy’ to help our salmon recover.”

Asked why they chose this plan instead of removing the dam, Bonham said it has taken decades to start building a low-cost, low-maintenance approach instead. Whittlesey said the dam is designed to hold back mining debris and sediment, and prevent flooding.

Newsom pointed out that the project is one of many using recent budget allocations to advance, including $100 million for salmon restoration, $84 million for hatcheries and $200 million for replenishing watershed and resilience.

“Permitting will be our principal challenge, but that’s also manmade,” he said.

The governor also noted the urgency of such projects to address the effects of climate change.

“It’s because of unprecedented impacts associated with climate,” Newsom said. “All of these things are connected. This is not just isolated to a few small issues.”

He added that due to the need to protect California’s biodiversity, he is stubborn about maintaining investments in the budget for it, despite a revenue shortfall.

“I’ve seen towns wiped off the map in real time,” he said. “I’m not taking these things for granted anymore.”