Radical idea for Butte Creek
A Chico man proposes saving salmon by replacing the Centerville Powerhouse with a solar array
Lars Estrem is a 35-year-old Chico man who until recently was employed as a seasonal firefighter, which meant that he worked hard during fire season but during winter months had time on his hands. Last year, he was looking for a way to make good use of that time—"something that would make a difference,” as he puts it—when he stumbled upon a list of the “10 worst dams in California” on the Web site of the environmental group Friends of the River.
One of those “bad dams” was right in the neighborhood—the Centerville Diversion Dam in Butte Creek Canyon. As a kid growing up in lower Paradise, Estrem used to go hiking in nearby Little Butte Creek Canyon and remembered seeing “huge numbers of salmon” there. If the Centerville dam was bad for the fish, he decided, he’d devote his time to trying to get rid of it—or at least improve it so the salmon fishery would be healthier.
His timing couldn’t have been better: The diversion dam is part of the DeSabla-Centerville Project, a hydroelectric system operated by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. that is up for relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That means all kinds of state and federal agencies and other interested parties are in the process of making recommendations about the project to FERC.
Estrem decided to jump in.
As if to prove that any citizen with a head on his shoulders, time on his hands and a sincere desire to improve things can do so, he set to work, researching the relicensing process, PG&E’s hydro project and everything he needed to know about salmon and steelhead runs on Butte Creek.
He studied the reports already submitted to FERC—from the National Marine Fisheries Services, for instance, and the California Department of Fish and Game—and talked with representatives of such groups as the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and Friends of Butte Creek.
Then, on Thursday, June 26, Estrem submitted his own five-page set of comments to FERC. Perhaps because he’s not a fisheries biologist or an expert on hydropower projects, he came up with something none of the others included in their reports. Where they largely made reformist recommendations regarding stream flows and water temperatures, Estrem came up with a radical alternative that takes the debate to a different level.
By all reckonings, the Butte Creek salmon fishery is doing well. As this author documented a year ago (”Salmon success story,” CN&R, July 12, 2007), in recent years the spring run of chinook salmon—the most important of the four seasonal runs—has increased dramatically, from just 80 in 1966 to 10,000 or more in several recent years. Butte Creek is now considered the healthiest wild-salmon spawning creek in Northern California, and was the subject of a recent cover story in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Much of this improvement is due to the removal of downstream obstacles to the salmon’s migration, but PG&E has also played an important role. Nudged by state and federal regulators, it has increased cold-water transfers—vital to salmon health—into Butte Creek from the West Branch of the Feather River and two small reservoirs, Philbrook and Round Valley, about 15 miles northeast of Magalia.
The water flows downriver and then through a canal and into a tunnel that connects to the Butte Creek watershed. Then it travels, via canal and penstock (pipe), through the Toadtown Powerhouse to the DeSabla Forebay, on a bluff overlooking Butte Creek just off the Skyway in Magalia.
There the water drops through a penstock into the DeSabla Powerhouse next to the creek below. Almost immediately, Butte Creek’s water is again diverted, this time at the Centerville Diversion Dam, which sends two-thirds of it into the Lower Centerville Canal.
That water travels via earthen canal and sections of man-made flume along the east side of the canyon more than six miles before plunging, via penstocks, into the Centerville Powerhouse.
The salmon-spawning section of Butte Creek extends from Quartz Bowl Pool, just below the Centerville Diversion Dam, downstream to the Honey Run Covered Bridge, a distance of 11 miles. The so-called upper reach, between the dam and the Centerville Powerhouse, is characterized by a series of deep pools where the fish like to swim over summer, waiting for autumn to spawn. Most of the best spawning gravel, however, is located downstream, between the powerhouse and the covered bridge.
There seems to be consensus among federal and state wildlife agencies that the health of the Butte Creek salmon fishery, while remarkable at a time when most of the Sacramento River fishery is in collapse, is nevertheless fragile—and will become more so as global warming increases.
Indeed, the future is now. California is officially in a drought, meaning that precipitation has been well below normal for two years. Whether there will be sufficient cold water in Lake Philbrook and the West Branch this summer to maintain healthful water levels and temperatures in Butte Creek and still keep the Centerville Powerhouse running remains to be seen.
Paul Moreno, PG&E’s Chico-based spokesman for the North Valley/Northern Sierra region, points out that the utility is committed to maintaining safe levels of cool water in the creek, even if it means reduced powerhouse operations during warm-weather and low-flow months.
But what if the Centerville Powerhouse were shut down altogether, the diversion dam destroyed and all the Butte Creek water allowed to flow downstream?
That’s what the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, along with Friends of the River, American Whitewater and Friends of Butte Creek, wants to know. Known collectively as the “Conservation Groups,” the four environmental organizations have jointly filed a detailed report with FERC in which they posit that the best way to protect the salmon and steelhead populations over the long term is by decommissioning the Centerville Powerhouse.
Even though this would result in the loss of the cold water from the West Branch—PG&E no longer would be required to divert it—it would increase flows in the upper reach and lower temperatures overall, as long as certain other measures were taken, including reducing “thermal loading” (viz., heating up) of water as it passes through the DeSabla Forebay.
Estrem’s report goes even further. He proposes not only that the Centerville Powerhouse be shut down, but also that PG&E replace the lost hydropower—which amounts to about 20 percent of the electricity generated by the DeSabla-Centerville Project—by constructing a large solar array on land it owns at the Table Mountain substation, near Oroville.
Using financial figures obtained from PG&E and elsewhere, he attempts to show that the cost of needed refurbishments at the Centerville Powerhouse, ongoing maintenance costs of an extensive system, and the lower maintenance costs of a solar array located right next to a major transmission line make his proposal cost-effective.
Plus, he says, it would be a public-relations boon for the utility. Not only would it eliminate the negative PR the company gets when something bad happens to the fish—as occurred in 2003, when thousands became sick and died—it would also allow the utility to make a major contribution to the community.
The Centerville Powerhouse is the oldest operating powerhouse in the United States, and by donating it to the Colman Museum in Centerville as a tourist attraction, PG&E would earn the gratitude of everyone in the North State, Estrem argues.
Moreno is hesitant to comment on any of the recommendations, saying PG&E experts have not yet studied the comments provided to FERC but expect to do so by mid-August. He does say, however, that the utility prefers to locate its solar-power facilities in the Mojave Desert, with its greater number of sunny days.
Hydropower, he reminds, is a pollution-free renewable energy source that operates day and night, good weather and bad, and an important part of PG&E’s operational system. But ultimately the decision on the Centerville Powerhouse will be up to FERC. And he forwarded an e-mail message from Bill Zemke, PG&E’s regulatory supervisor, who at the CN&R’s request had taken a look at Estrem’s proposal.
FERC will be conducting a National Environmental Policy Act analysis over the next year, Zemke’s message said. “One alternative that they will likely consider is retiring the project. I assume that this alternative [Estrem’s proposal] would be included in this analysis.”
For his part, Estrem is convinced decommissioning the Centerville Powerhouse is the way to go. “I just want to see the best overall choice being made,” he said. “Spending extra money on solar would pay off in both PG&E’s image and in maintenance costs.”