Big money flows in

Grants to fund projects protecting fish, water along Butte Creek and the Feather River

Since the drought struck several years ago, Northern California’s salmon populations have plummeted. Two new projects in Butte County—one on Butte Creek and the other on the Feather River—aim to protect those salmon and recently got the green light by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The grants, part of Proposition 1 approved by voters in 2014, total up to $2.75 million. The first, smaller, grant was awarded to the Family Water Alliance for a fish screen along Butte Creek. The second is upward of $1.6 million and calls for elimination of invasive species along the Feather River just downstream of Lake Oroville as well as reintroduction of native floodplains in order to benefit salmonid populations.

Both projects are important to the overall health of California’s watersheds and the protection of native species, explained Matt Wells, policy and administration manager for the CDFW’s Watershed Restoration Grants Branch.

“Our portion of Prop. 1 covers anything we can do to restore watersheds and habitat to not only benefit what we focus on—the habitat for fish and wildlife—but also increase efficiency for water flow and storage,” he said. Other portions of the proposition cover drought preparedness, groundwater sustainability and flood management, among other water issues.

When Prop. 1—aka the Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014—was passed, the CDFW first developed the application and award process and then opened up for proposals last summer. They were immediately overwhelmed, receiving 190 proposals for more than $200 million in funding. They awarded about $31 million to 24 projects, but recognized that “clearly there was an unmet need,” Wells said. So, they secured another $20 million, which allowed them to approve five additional projects—including those on Butte Creek and the Feather River.

The wild chinook salmon is well-known in California’s Central Valley, including Butte Creek, where it enjoys its largest spring run. While the species used to live in abundance in the region—swimming upriver to spawn in the fall and then to the Pacific Ocean in the spring—its populations have dwindled to the point that it’s now considered threatened.

One of the obstacles these salmon face is, quite simply, staying in the creek. Diversions, like one located on the Butte Creek Canyon Ecological Reserve that serves nearby farmers, sometimes divert more than water.

“This one on Butte Creek is not a huge diversion—it’s relatively small—but it’s known to be an entrapment spot for 10,000-plus juvenile chinook salmon,” Wells explained. That number is not the annual entrapment rate, he elaborated, but rather a number gathered over several years of monitoring. But it was significant enough to place that particular diversion on a state list of priorities for building a fish screen, helping it to get the Prop. 1 funding. “It has potential to make a big impact,” Wells said of the project.

Fish screens are aptly named, as they function exactly how one might expect—they screen out fish. When the creek is pumped for agricultural use, a screen would keep the fish on their path instead of allowing them to be sent off-course by the diversion.

“Screen projects are a huge priority for the department, and for state and federal regulators,” Wells said. “Everyone agrees that this work needs to be done, so there’s pressure to fund these projects.”

One of the reasons Family Water Alliance decided to work on this project is its potential to help both farmers and the environment.

“Family Water Alliance is very much about keeping agricultural communities whole,” said Debbi Lemburg, project manager for the organization’s Sacramento Valley Fish Screen Program. “By putting in a screen, they can continue to pump water while protecting the species. We want the salmon industry to come back and be as successful as it has been.”

The Butte Creek project is in the permitting phase, Lemburg explained. The CDFW awarded Family Water Alliance—headquartered in Maxwell—up to $150,000, primarily to go through the California Environmental Quality Act and National Environmental Policy Act permitting processes.

Once the project has all the permits necessary, she added, they’ll be able to go back to the CDFW and submit a second proposal for grant funding to cover the costs of “implementation,” or construction of the screen.

The Lake Oroville project is in the implementation phase already, Wells explained. It also came to the table with some matching funds, which made the $1.6 million grant easier to approve. The project calls for improving the connectivity of the Feather River to its historic floodplain, which would increase the historic habitat for salmonids while reducing flooding in the channel.

That’s exactly the kind of project the CDFW is looking to fund.

“This one definitely outlines a plan to restore species and habitat and create a more resilient water resources system that can better survive whatever happens in the future,” Wells said.