Let our creek flow, PG&E!

Allen Harthorn is executive director of the conservation group, Friends of Butte Creek, which can be found online at www.buttecreek.org.

Editor’s note: This commentary responds to “Salmon success story” in the July 12 Newslines section.

The Friends of Butte Creek don’t have a helicopter to ferry reporters around in [as PG&E does], so it’s a little harder for us to catch their ear sometimes. PG&E is doing a good job of giving its best PR for its DeSabla-Centerville hydroelectric project. Historically, this project has caused the decline of the spring run of chinook salmon, not enhanced it.

Up until 1992, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—at the request of the California Department of Fish & Game and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service—ordered PG&E to increase the flows in the section above Centerville Powerhouse to 40 cubic-feet per second and reduce its diversion, the spring-run chinook of Butte Creek were barely hanging on. Fish struggled for decades as the flow above the powerhouse, where they have undisturbed habitat, ran at a dribble of 10 cfs all summer.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, the flow between pools in the Helltown area was almost non-existent. At that time, almost no salmon survived above the powerhouse. They huddled in the pools below the powerhouse, where the poachers, tubers, swimmers, etc., harassed them all summer. For decades PG&E doggedly fought efforts to increase the flow above the powerhouse. Since the flows were increased, the salmon have dramatically rebounded, averaging 10,000 fish per year.

PG&E filed documents saying that salmon and steelhead never got above Centerville diversion dam, therefore no ladders were needed. PG&E’s unscreened diversions, which annually divert hundreds of juvenile trout, interrupt the natural movement of fish down the streams. In most years, these fish are removed when PG&E drains the canals for maintenance. The fish are trucked miles upstream and dumped off a bridge. FBC is quite pleased to see PG&E is considering adding ladders and screens, although that has not been officially confirmed.

PG&E should have mentioned that the disease outbreak on the Klamath in 2002 also produced the same results in Butte Creek, as nearly 7,000 salmon died before spawning in 2002, and 11,000 died in 2003 from the same diseases. Most of the mortality was above the powerhouse in the low-flow section.

Temperature studies done for the relicensing are demonstrating that running the combined flow of the West Branch of the Feather River and Butte Creek down the creek below the Centerville Head dam—rather than through Centerville Powerhouse—would greatly enhance the available habitat for the salmon. The additional flow of West Branch water may be helping the salmon, but it should be running in the creek, not the canal!

DeSabla-Centerville produces renewable energy, but more can be done to help the fish and the streams. Tell PG&E, “Let Butte Creek flow.”