On February 22, 2018, the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California, issued a detailed written decision in Friends of the River v. National Marine Fisheries Service (E.D.Cal. 2018) 293 F.Supp.3d 1151, upholding the 2014 Biological Opinion (BiOp) and Letter of Concurrence adopted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps’) activities at the Daguerre Point and Englebright Dams on the Yuba River. RMM attorneys Howard “Chip” Wilkins, Laura Harris, and Elizabeth Sarine represented the defendant-intervenor Yuba County Water Agency (YCWA) in the matter.
The case is part of a long-standing dispute over whether the Corps’ ongoing activities at Daguerre Point Dam and Englebright Dam jeopardize the survival and recovery of three ESA-listed species or adversely modify their critical habitat. The primary purpose of both Daguerre Point Dam and Englebright Dam is to retain hydraulic mining debris. Both dams were constructed prior to Congress’ enactment of ESA.
In 2012, the Corps prepared a biological assessment (BA) as part of its ESA consultation for the Corps activities on Daguerre Point and Englebright. The 2012 BA excluded the future effects of the dams’ presence as part of the “agency action,” and instead posited that such effects should be included in the environmental baseline. The Corps made this determination on the basis that it did not have the authority to change the existence of the dams (e.g., the Corps had not authority to remove the dams). The 2012 BiOp issued by NMFS, however, concluded that the Corps’ activities—including those over which the BA stated the Corps had no discretion, such as the existence of the dams—were likely to jeopardize the listed species.
The Corps and YCWA had “serious concerns” regarding the 2012 BiOp and the Corps sought to reinitiate consultation. In 2013, the Corps reasserted its position that the dams’ continued existence was not an agency action because it was non-discretionary. The Corps also broke up what it had previously considered one “agency action” along the Yuba River into several parts, separating actions connected with the dams, and licensing.
In 2014, NMFS issued a “Letter of Concurrence” for the Englebright Dam, in which NMFS concurred with the Corps’ 2013 BA for that dam. NMFS agreed with the Corps that the Corps’ proposed action at Englebright was not likely to jeopardize listed species. NMFS also issued a new BiOp for Daguerre Point (2014 BiOp), also agreeing with the Corps that the Corps’ activities at Daguerre Point were not likely to jeopardize listed species.
Friends of the River (FOR) filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District, against NMFS and the Corps alleging the 2014 Letter of Concurrence and the 2012 BiOp violated Section 7 of ESA’s consultation requirements. FOR also alleged the Corps had violated Section 9 of ESA, which prohibits “take” of a listed species. YCWA moved to intervene as a defendant in the case, and the motion was granted. The court decided the case via motion and cross-motions for summary judgment.
At the heart of the dispute between FOR and the defendants was the question of whether the Corps and NMFS had properly defined the scope of the Corps’ actions on the Daguerre Point and Englebright Dams. In particular, FOR argued that the agencies violated ESA in excluding impacts arising from the existence of the dams from the agency action under consultation. The court disagreed, holding that the federal agencies’ inclusion of the effects of the existence of the dams as part of the environmental baseline, as opposed to part of the agency action, was not arbitrary and capricious.
In particular, FOR argued to the District Court that the agencies violated the ESA in excluding impacts arising from the existence of the dams from the effects of the agency action. The court disagreed, holding that the federal agencies’ inclusion of the effects of the existence of the dams as part of the environmental baseline, as opposed to part of the agency actions, was not arbitrary and capricious. The court also held: (1) NMFS consideration of voluntary conservation measures as part of the agency actions was not arbitrary or capricious; (2) the federal agencies were not required to include additional activities on the Yuba River as interrelated and interdependent actions in their evaluation of the agency actions; (3) federal defendants’ assessment of the action area was not arbitrary and capricious; (4) NMFS was under no duty to re-identify the agency actions defined by the Corps; (5) the conclusions that the Corps’ activities at the dams would not likely adversely affect listed species was not arbitrary and capricious; (6) NMFS adequately explained its change in position from the 2012 BiOp that took a different approach in defining the agency actions; (7) reinitiation of consultation was not required; and (8) the Corps could not be held liable under Section 9 for take caused by the existence of the dams because the Corps has no discretion over the dams’ existence.
The decision represents an important victory for YCWA and the federal defendants in the long-standing dispute concerning the Corps’ activities at Englebright and Daguerre Point Dams and their effects on listed species.