Red Bluff rallies ’round lake

Downstream farmers and endangered fish said to need more water

WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE? <br>The Sacramento River as seen from atop the Red Bluff Diversion Dam. When the dam gates are closed, Lake Red Bluff is created.

The Sacramento River as seen from atop the Red Bluff Diversion Dam. When the dam gates are closed, Lake Red Bluff is created.

Photo by Tom Angel

Damming evidence: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service Web site states that dams in general block migration patterns of both mature and adolescent fish and impede their ability to spawn. Many dams also create warm, slow-moving currents that encourage the growth of predators and disease-causing bacteria.

It’s the incredible vanishing lake.

For the hottest four months of the year, the people of Red Bluff have a three-mile-long lake where they can go fishing, swimming, boating and camping. Residents consider it a lifesaver to have access to their favorite splashing grounds in the often 110-degree heat.

For the rest of the year, however, when the gates that dam the water are lifted, they have only a dry mud puddle with the Sacramento River running through it.

But the lake isn’t the only thing vanishing. Downstream, the water diverted from the river that forms Lake Red Bluff is crucial not only to the farmers who use it to irrigate crops, but also to the fish that swim up it to spawn. Neither, it seems, is getting enough water.

On Aug. 30, the Tehama-Colusa Canal District and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, two of the agencies in charge of maintaining the waterway, jointly issued an environmental-impact report (EIR) detailing three basic options that they hope will provide some relief to the downstream users. But whatever happens to Lake Red Bluff, someone has to lose out. The option chosen by the Bureau of Reclamation, in consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service, will determine who gets soaked and who ends up on dry land.

The EIR options range from keeping the gates at the Red Bluff Diversion Dam out of the water year-round, which would let the river flow naturally, to adding a new pumping station and improved fish ladders and continuing the four-month lake tradition.

If you go by the reaction of Red Bluff’s City Council and Chamber of Commerce, it’s an open-and-shut case: The people of Red Bluff want to keep their lake. At a recent community meeting, several people spoke about how much the lake meant to them. The lone voice for allowing the river to flow naturally was reportedly booed and hissed at by the pro-lake majority.

When asked how important the lake is to the town, Red Bluff Chamber of Commerce board member Marshall Pike replied, “How important is Bidwell Park to Chico? Red Bluff has developed a whole summer characteristic around lakeside opportunities. Without the lake, the quality of life around here is greatly diminished.”

Pike, who gets his summer exercise rowing around the lake in an aluminum boat, said losing Lake Red Bluff would also be a major financial blow to the small town’s struggling economy.

Figures quoted in the EIR state that more than 60,000 people visit the lake each year. One of the Red Bluff’s main sales-tax generators is the annual International Hot Boat Association boat drags, where as many as 20,000 people come to the lake to watch boaters from around the world compete for a $230,000 purse.

But not everyone in Red Bluff is gung-ho for the lake. Dan Miller, a longtime resident who has come to call himself “Red Bluff’s least-liked citizen” for his stand against Lake Red Bluff, thinks it’s a selfish, cynical thing for the town’s residents to insist that their wish to go boating four months out of the year supercedes the rights of farmers and fish that rely upon the lake’s water for their very survival.

“That diversion dam serves no purpose,” Miller said. “All it does is lift the water 12 feet and block the salmon. By damming the river, they really are damning it.”

Like the salmon he’s trying to save, Miller has been swimming against the current in his effort to have the river restored and the gates left open year-round. To his mind, four months of recreation (and the tax and tourism dollars that come with it) are simply not worth the loss of the many fish that die when they get to the lake, finding their path blocked from their seasonal spawning grounds by an 18-foot steel wall.

“Any time the gates are down, they create an environment where predatory fish have an advantage over migratory fish,” he said. “All the government owes us is to pull the gravel back and restore the river to its natural, tree-lined grace.”

The dam system that creates the lake was built in the 1960s as a way to hold and divert water for distribution to two irrigation canals, the 111-mile Tehama-Colusa Canal and the much smaller Corning Canal that ends a few miles south of the city of Corning. Together, these canals provide water for 17 water districts in four counties, representing irrigation for 300,000 acres of farmland.

Back when the dam was built, it kept water in the lake year-round, which guaranteed a good flow of water to the downstream farmers. But when environmental agencies noticed that the populations of fish that use the waterways—especially endangered or threatened species like Chinook salmon and steelhead trout—were in serious decline, they began to gradually cut back on the time they allowed the dam gates to be closed.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which keeps track of fish populations, estimates that the winter-run salmon population along the Sacramento River has declined from more than 100,000 fish in 1968 to just 100 fish today. Though the agency has no control over how long the dam gates are left closed, they could advise the Bureau of Reclamation to leave the gates out completely, leaving Lake Red Bluff high and dry. Without the dam, a new pumping station would have to be built to lift the water into the irrigation canals.

Art Bullock, spokesman for the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority, which distributes the diverted water to farmers, said that whatever happens to the dam, a pumping station will need to be built. The canal authority has endorsed the EIR’s option three, which would build a pumping station on the upstream side of the dam, leaving the gates out and the lake empty year-round.

But Bullock stressed that the canal authority, which has no real say in the future of the lake, does not necessarily want to see it dried up. What it wants, he said, is enough water to serve its customers.

“We are not advocating changing the operation of the dam, nor do we want to see it happen,” Bullock said. “From a water supply standpoint it doesn’t matter. What we want to do is add reliability to the water supply. We’re trying to preserve agriculture.”

Since the users of the canal water have paid for the maintenance of the dam ever since it was built, Bullock said the residents of Red Bluff have actually gotten a pretty fair deal over the years, having had access to the man-made lake without ever having to pay for it. Bullock also said that, in the end, the agencies that are concerned with endangered species are the ones that hold all the cards.

“They’ve got the Endangered Species Act on their side,” Bullock said. “As long as they’ve got that, they control what happens.”

A spokes man for the National Maine Fisheries Service said a decision about the dam was likely more than a year away.

No fish could be reached for comment.