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St. Helena threatened with lawsuit over stalled dam removal

An environmental advocacy group that sued the city last year over water diversion at Bell Canyon Reservoir is now threatening a separate lawsuit over the long delay in the removal of the Upper York Creek Dam.

Grant Reynolds of Water Audit California, a public benefit corporation, wrote a letter to the city on Feb. 11 requesting various city records involving the dam, and followed up two days later with a letter threatening to sue “to compel the city to action.”

The dam has been declared a barrier to fish passage, and its removal has been on the city’s to-do list since at least 1993 when, in response to a state lawsuit, the city agreed to a court order pledging to remove the dam by Nov. 1, 1993. The order was lifted in 2001 to help the city apply for grant funding, and in 2010 the city entered into a settlement agreement with NOAA Fisheries pledging to remove the dam by 2012.

“We are aware that the city claims that it is financially incapable of removing the dam, but having reviewed the city’s financial statements we have concluded that the city’s assertions are an excuse, not a reason,” wrote Reynolds, a San Diego resident, in his letter. “The city has a duty to the people of the State, and it must be performed.”

“I regret this unnecessary claim,” said Mayor Alan Galbraith. “During my time as mayor, the city has been steadfastly committed to the removal of the Upper York Creek Dam and associated environmental work, with funding from grants and the water enterprise. No general funds of the city are committed to this project, as is appropriate.”

Recent councils have made the dam’s removal a priority, but have struggled to scrape together the estimated $6.2 million needed to finish the project. The new water rates would contribute $1.7 million toward the project, with the rest coming from grants and bond proceeds. The council approved the project’s final environmental impact report in 2015.

Critics of the recent water rate increases say that, due to the long delay and escalating costs, the city’s General Fund should contribute toward the project.

Water Audit sued the city of St. Helena last August, claiming the city has failed to bypass enough water from Bell Canyon Reservoir into Bell Creek, allegedly resulting in loss of fish habitat. In November it also sued the state Department of Veterans Affairs, which owns Rector Reservoir, for not allowing enough water to enter Rector Creek.

Reynolds previously pursued expensive litigation against the city of Calistoga on similar grounds.

Reynolds’ public records request refers questions to attorney William McKinnon, who also assisted Reynolds with the Calistoga litigation.

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