In summary

The EPA’s rollbacks are largely going unnoticed by the general public as states and tribes are hindered in working to ensure that rivers are protected.

By Ashley Overhouse, Special to CalMatters

Ashley Overhouse is the River Policy Manager with South Yuba River Citizens League, ashley@yubariver.org. The South Yuba River Citizens League is a member of the Hydropower Reform Coalition.

Here in California, rivers are a cornerstone of our landscapes. On a recent rafting trip down Northern California’s Yuba River, I was lucky to see eagles flying overhead and salmon spawning beneath our boat. Experiences like this remind me to appreciate the protections that keep our water clean and safe, and help habitats thrive.

California is home to about 200,000 miles of rivers. Our rivers aren’t just treasured places to recreate – they’re a vital source of clean water for many households. Statewide, two-thirds of our drinking water comes from surface water sources. 

Today’s clean water protections originated with the Clean Water Act in the 1970s. It was enacted to clean up polluted rivers and to prevent such pollution in the future. A critical piece of the Clean Water Act, known as Section 401, allows states and tribes to work with the federal government to ensure that rivers are protected and that projects meet the needs of local communities. 

Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency recently created new rules for how states and tribes can use their authority under Section 401. The new rules prevent states and tribes from requesting certain types of information to make an informed decision; they allow federal agencies to impose unreasonably short timelines on decision-making, and they prevent states and tribes from considering factors like climate change when deciding to approve or deny permits for projects. All together, these changes severely limit the authority states and tribes have to protect clean water.

What do these changes look like in practice? On the Yuba River, the state was required to assess a variety of potential impacts, including dams preventing salmon and steelhead from accessing 90% of their habitat, and how dramatic flow fluctuations have starved native plants on barren floodplains and kept miles of river unnaturally low and too warm. 

Unfortunately, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission waived Section 401 certification on most hydropower operations in the Yuba watershed. Those waivers are currently being challenged in court

Hydropower dams have wreaked havoc on the Yuba ecosystem for decades, so careful analysis was necessary to tease out the impacts attributable to the project and determine the best way to fix them. Without such careful analysis, impacts go unaddressed and projects continue to damage rivers for the 40- to 50-year duration of their federal license. That is not in anyone’s best interest.  

Another concerning outcome of Section 401 rollbacks is that states and tribes are unable to weigh climate change impacts in their decision-making. 

In California, we are already experiencing the impacts of the climate crisis. Wildfires leave behind scorched hillsides that are less able to absorb water. When the rain eventually comes, this may trigger mudslides that fill rivers and reservoirs with sediment, which puts drinking water at risk. 

More than 3 million acres have burned across our state this year, and more than 700 acres in the Yuba watershed. This future fear is now our reality. When considering how to protect our clean water into the future, our state must be able to consider climate change impacts. 

The EPA’s Section 401 rollbacks are largely going unnoticed by the general public despite the wide-ranging, devastating implications for clean water. Given that Californians up and down the state rely on rivers for our drinking water, I urge you to contact your members of Congress. Clean water is essential for everyone. Tell our leaders that you support states’ and tribal rights to protect clean water for all Californians.

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