Up a creek with no water
Thousands of fish left high and dry in Stony Creek outside of Hamilton City
The stench of death has been inescapable along Stony Creek for the past couple weeks—particularly for the Hull family, whose homestead and walnut orchard outside of Hamilton City is directly adjacent to the waterway. The smell crosses their lawn and patio when the wind turns. It’s brought inside by their dogs. At night, with their windows shut tight, they’re reminded of it by the cries of feasting coyotes.
The source is thousands of rotting fish carcasses—those of salmon, perch, bass and carp—strewn along the dry creek bed for hundreds of yards and most concentrated in an indentation along the bank below the Hull residence. That’s where many of the fish were trapped in an isolated pool when water abruptly stopped flowing about two weeks ago.
Lynette Hull and her husband, Max, along with their daughter, Kelly, have lived on Stony Creek for 14 years, and the property has been in the family much longer. During a recent visit, Lynette recounted summer days spent wading and swimming in the creek, before California’s ongoing drought set in. From that point forward, Lynette said, water releases from Black Butte Dam have been scarce. Last year, no water flowed through Stony Creek at all.
Water was running in the creek over the last few months, but stopped flowing suddenly.
“We’ve never experienced this before,” Max said. “Somebody shut the water off and trapped all those poor fish down there.”
While the family isn’t happy with the associated odors, they’re more upset about the fish suffering slow, reverse-drowning deaths as the creek dried.
“It was horrible,” Kelly said, shaking her head. “Just disgusting.”
Stony Creek originates in the Mendocino National Forest, flows through the foothills of the Coast Range and feeds into Black Butte Lake outside of Orland. After exiting Black Butte Dam, the creek is heavily drawn upon for irrigation. What’s left goes underground or into the Sacramento River.
Responsibility for managing water releases from Black Butte Lake changes seasonally, said Kevin Kibby, a hydrologic technician with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. From November to March, which is flood-control season, the lake is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. From April through October, or irrigation season, it’s managed by Kibby’s agency.
Due to drought conditions, water releases into Stony Creek did stop more suddenly than in years past, Kibby said. The Army Corps maintained a release rate of 30 cubic feet per second (CFS) over the winter, and Kibby was faced with a tough decision when responsibility of Black Butte Dam transferred to his agency in the middle of March.
“We have to keep a minimum amount of water in Black Butte, or else there would be a fish die-off in the lake itself,” he said. “That has to be taken into consideration.”
While he had the option of cutting off water from the reservoir entirely, he said the lack of rainfall forced him to reduce the rate of release to 15 CFS, which “isn’t going to get very far,” he said. (The normal rate of 30 CFS allows the creek to run well past the Hull residence before going underground.)
The resulting fish die-off in Stony Creek was “absolutely not anticipated,” Kibby said. “In normal years, the water level wouldn’t drop that fast. I didn’t expect or want this. … There’s nothing about it I like.
“I put a lot of thought into this,” he continued. “I’ve been working at the bureau since 2002, and I grew up in Hamilton City. This is my passion. We manage [Black Butte Dam] the best we can, but not to everyone’s satisfaction, I’m sure.”
Meanwhile, the Hull family says the stench of dead fish is subsiding on their bucolic orchard property. Scavengers and the unrelenting sun have turned most of the carcasses into dry, hollow shells.
But the frustration of watching a mass die-off in their backyard is fresh, Lynette said. “It just makes you so mad.”