Home run for fish
Spawning grounds in Battle Creek set for restoration
Battle Creek is a pristine mountain stream that flows in two forks, North and South, from high country near Lassen Peak down through the Lassen front country, near the towns of Manton and Shingleton, and then into the Sacramento River about halfway between Red Bluff and Redding.
Historically the creek was prime salmon and steelhead spawning ground, but construction of a series of small Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power facilities, with their diversion dams, made it impossible for the fish to migrate, and today the salmon produced in the creek come from the Coleman National Fish Hatchery. It’s located just three miles east of where Battle Creek, its two forks now conjoined, runs into the Sacramento River.
Two weeks ago, however, a group of five federal and state agencies, along with PG&E, announced a historic funding transfer agreement that ultimately will provide more than $100 million to restore a full 42 miles of prime Battle Creek spawning habitat, as well as six miles of habitat in its tributary streams.
The project, which is occurring in three phases, includes removal of five hydroelectric diversion dams, the installation of new screens and fish ladders on three other dams, and increased stream flows in both forks of Battle Creek.
“It’s a big deal,” said John McCamman, chief deputy director of the California Department of Fish and Game, one of the signatory agencies. “This type of project is key to the survival of the species, and we see this as a major effort in that process.”
Jim Smith, a project manager in Red Bluff with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, another signatory, described the restoration effort as “really one of the largest comprehensive restoration projects in North America.”
Both men, along with everyone else involved with the project, see it as a prototype for how government agencies, private power companies and local residents can work together to resolve their differences, come up with a plan and find the funding to restore salmon and steelhead spawning runs.
The impetus for the restoration project came, interestingly enough, not from local residents, but rather from coastal salmon-fishing groups. They were seeing their catches decline each year and drew the only conclusion that was feasible: Not enough fish were completing the spawning cycle.
In the late 1990s, the salmon fishers approached the USFWS, Smith said, and “asked that all the agencies sit down at the table and talk about what could be done.”
Fisheries experts had long known that Battle Creek had great promise for restoration. Because it flows mostly through narrow canyons and is fed by cold-water springs along the way, its water stays cooler than that of any other creek in the Sacramento River watershed and is considered virtually “drought-proof.” That makes it ideal for salmon and steelhead spawning, especially as global warming heats up spawning streams elsewhere.
Then as now, however, PG&E was operating under Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensing agreements signed in the 1970s, at the height of an energy crisis, allowing it to divert nearly all of the creek’s water into diversion canals. Today, in many sections of the creek, water runs at only three to five cubic feet per second—a trickle really, and far from sufficient to sustain salmon and steelhead.
Any restoration plan would require PG&E to forgo some of its power generation. To its credit, the giant utility company understood the urgency of the need to restore the fishery and was willing to compromise.
Mary Marshall, who works for the Bureau of Reclamation and for the past 4 years was project manager of the restoration effort, said the initial goal was twofold: to help the fish population and minimize the cost to PG&E. The result is that, while the utility is receiving some compensation in meeting its Endangered Species Act requirements, it is also giving up some of its power.
The power loss is about 15 percent in the first phase and 30 percent altogether, said Liv Imset, PG&E’s project manager on the restoration effort.
The utility recognized early on that restoring Battle Creek was a unique opportunity, Imset said. “Everybody’s opinion was that it had a very high chance of succeeding. …We understood that it would require a little bit of sacrifice on our part.”
Paul Moreno, the spokesman for PG&E in this region, added that PG&E looked upon it as a way “to set an example of corporate responsibility.”
There’s not enough room here to list all the agencies and other groups involved in this project, nor to describe the sheer complexity of pulling it all together. Sharon Paquin-Gilmore, the coordinator of the Battle Creek Watershed Conservancy, a group of local landowners, said that the parties had to work though major differences of opinion to reach consensus and credits Marshall for her gentle perseverance in bringing people together.
Paquin-Gilmore is a retired Chico State University English instructor who has owned a house in Manton for more than 20 years and lives there now with her husband, Steve Gilmore, an architect who practiced for many years in Chico.
The conservancy was just forming at the time work began on developing the restoration plan, Paquin-Gilmore said, and as the plan evolved the group became increasingly involved, not only to point out potential shortcomings of the plan, but also to soften local resistance to it.
“There was a lot of distrust up here,” she explained. “People were concerned about government regulations, that sort of thing.” One way the group gained landowners’ trust was by doing a watershed-wide assessment that successfully pressured the Coleman hatchery to change some practices that were seen as detrimental.
Paquin now also chairs the Greater Battle Creek Watershed Working Group, a consortium of public and private agencies and nonprofits ranging from the DFG and PG&E to The Nature Conservancy and the Nor-Cal Fishing Guides and Sportsmen’s Association. Originally formed to aid in implementing the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, which has funded stream improvements up and down the valley, it now functions as a kind of über-advisory group to the restoration project team.
Paquin-Gilmore’s work is typical of the “grassroots” nature of the project, Marshall said. The project began with citizens concerned about the health of fisheries who got various agencies to come up with a memorandum of understanding in 1999 that has led, ultimately, to a final plan, a funding agreement and a probable groundbreaking next summer.
At this point, the only step remaining is to obtain an amendment to PG&E’s FERC license, which is expected to take about six months. The two required environmental-impact reports have both been certified, and $42.75 million in funding for the first phase is in the bag. The money comes from a variety of sources, but the bulk is from Proposition 50, an initiative passed in 2002 to pay for improving water sources.
The first phase (Phase 1A) will target the removal or retrofitting of five hydro dams in the area. Specifically, it includes installing fish screens and ladders at the North Battle Creek Feeder and Eagle Canyon Diversion Dams and removing Wildcat Diversion Dam and appurtenant conveyance systems of the North Fork, installing a pipeline in the Eagle Canyon canal and modifying Asbury Dam on Baldwin Creek.
That phase is expected to be completed in 2010.
Subsequent phases (Phases 1B and 2) include installing various tailrace connectors as well as fish screens and ladders and removing three more diversion dams.
Marshall is completely confident that the restoration will work and that within a few years Battle Creek will have a significant population of wild salmon and steelhead.
“The will definitely help the fish,” she said. “But it also goes to show what can happen when people make a cooperative effort through the years. All of the parties recognized how valuable each one’s contribution was, and all understood the value of their effort to the environment.”