Highway for fish
Prime migratory fish habitat in Battle Creek a little closer to restoration
A long-term plan aimed at restoring migratory fish habitat in Battle Creek inched forward July 26 as Pacific Gas & Electric Co. released a draft of the project’s final phase for stakeholder review.
Battle Creek flows in two forks, north and south, originating near Mount Lassen and connecting to the Sacramento River about halfway between Red Bluff and Redding. Fed by cold springs year-round, the waterway is less susceptible to drought conditions than most, and the shelter provided by the steep, remote canyons it runs through makes Battle Creek and its tributaries ideal spawning grounds for migratory steelhead and salmon species.
Or, at least, they would be, if not for a series of PG&E hydroelectric diversion dams that have long prevented migratory fish from making their way upstream and into the pristine tributaries beyond. As a result, the majority of those fish currently found in the creek are spawned at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery, located just 3 miles east of where Battle Creek meets the Sacramento River.
In 1999, under pressure from coastal salmon-fishing groups, stakeholders including PG&E, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and private landowners signed a memorandum of understanding committing each party to the Battle Creek Salmon and Steelhead Restoration Project. The plan outlined the removal of five diversion dams, the installation of new screens and fish ladders at three other dams, and increased stream flows in both forks of Battle Creek. The overarching goal was to restore 42 miles of Battle Creek spawning habitat, as well as 6 miles of habitat in its tributary streams.
It would be nearly a decade before the project began in earnest. In 2008, the stakeholders announced a funding transfer of $100 million, about a third of which was provided by Proposition 50, an initiative passed in 2002 to improve water sources. Construction got underway in 2009.
To PG&E’s credit, the utility giant willingly sacrificed power production for the cause. Paul Moreno, a local PG&E spokesman, said that once the project is completed, the utility’s capacity to generate energy from its hydroelectric systems on Battle Creek will be reduced by about a third.
“The environmental benefits of this project are clear,” Moreno said, “and we can maintain viable hydroelectric facilities that coexist with native fish species and habitat.”
During the first phase of the project, most construction work has been limited to areas upstream of the diversion dams, Moreno said, providing a buffer zone between fish and construction activities. When the project is completed sometime in 2019, most of Battle Creek will be opened for migratory fish all at once.
One area is an exception. The Wildcat Diversion Dam was removed in 2010, opening up about 15 miles of previously unreachable habitat. Already, natural spring-run chinook salmon have returned to the area.
The very survival of winter-run chinook may hinge on the restoration effort. Loredana Potter, a spokeswoman at the Bureau of Reclamation, said in an email that the species is currently found in only one place in California—on the Sacramento River downstream from Redding.
“Battle Creek, with its stable base flow and cold water, may be the only habitat capable of supporting a second population of winter-run chinook salmon,” she said. “A second population could be valuable if conditions in the Sacramento River decline due to drought, climate change, water contamination or other unforeseen factors.”
The final phase of the project, set to begin in 2017, includes removing the final four diversion dams, the installation of a fish ladder at Inskip Diversion Dam—which will remain intact—and numerous additional measures to ensure clear passageways for fish.
After stakeholders review PG&E’s draft application for the final phase of the restoration plan, the application will be submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in October.