Butte Creek Fish Kill Update
PG&E Pleads Ignorance To Sediment Spill On Spawning Beds 
by Dan Bacher
November 18, 2003

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After the largest fish kill of threatened adult salmon in U.S. history, you’d think that Pacific Gas and Electric Company would more carefully monitor its hydroelectric operations on Butte Creek.


After the federal government intervened and ordered PG&E to take immediate action regarding its practices that resulted in huge fish kills the past two years, you’d think that the company would go out of its way to preserve the several thousand survivors of this year's kill and make sure that they spawned successfully.


But PG&E apparently seems committed to business as usual, based on a disturbing report on the pouring of sediment on spawning beds in the creek, as observed by Allen Harthorn of Friends of Butte Creek at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, October 21.


An estimated 12,000 to 15,000 threatened spring-run chinooks - 80 to 90 percent of the run - perished this July and August because of PG&E’s refusal to release sufficient flows into the stream to save the fish. A tributary of the Sacramento River, Butte Creek arises in the mountains east of Chico.


Harthorn noticed the sediment dump only by a fluke of fate - he had to drive home to his property on Butte Creek after forgetting to take his wallet with him.


"The sediment was being dumped from the Centerville Canal overflow onto salmon redds in Butte Creek," Harthorn stated. "This overflow enters Butte Creek immediately above the powerhouse. This water has been diverted from Butte Creek at Centerville Head Dam and travels several miles down the flume and does not generate power or have any other beneficial use."


Several PG&E employees were working in the powerhouse but seemed unaware of the problem. "There was absolutely no monitoring taking place,” he noted.


"It is ironic that this sediment was being dumped on the salmon redds downstream of the powerhouse that PG&E and DFG are working so hard to protect," Harthorn explained. "Visibility at the Centerville bridge downstream went from around 8-10 foot visibility to 2-3 foot visibility. Salmon that were spawning there moved away when the sediment passed. Most of it settled out fairly quickly, which seems good, but it is clearly jeopardizing spring run salmon."


With photos attached, Harthorn sent his report on the dumping of sediment on spawning beds to federal and state agencies and PG&E. He asked them to keep him keep posted as to actions taken to mitigate this “take.”


Jim Canaday, the Senior Environmental Scientist of the FERC Relicensing Team of the State Water Resources Control Board, asked PG&E for a report on how and why the spill occurred. Company officials pleaded ignorance of the spill as it occurred.


“In response to your question regarding water quality monitoring, PG&E did not conduct monitoring because we were unaware of the turbidity,” said Angela Risdon, spokesperson for Pacific Gas and Electric Company, in a letter to Canaday. “Consistent with the information you have received, we understand that the turbidity was of short duration. The PG&E roving operator who responded to the Centerville Powerhouse to restore the unit back to service did not observe any turbidity, although he was confined primarily to the inside of the Powerhouse and switchyard.”


She said that both the De Sabla and Centerville powerhouses“tripped off line” on the morning of the spill - and that PG&E is currently investigating the unplanned powerhouse outrage to determine if there is “any correlation with the appearance of the turbid water.”


Sediment spills have been a persistent problem on Butte Creek over the years. For example, PG&E's Centerville flume failed on May 11, 2003 and dumped massive amounts of sediment into Butte Creek.


NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act, estimated that 80 to 90 percent of the spring run this year died before spawning. The fish died from a mixture of columnaris (bacterial gill disease) and ich, the same two diseases that caused the deaths of over 34,000 fish on the Klamath River last September.


A huge run of wild, listed salmon was lost because the California Department of Fish and Game, under the “leadership” of former DFG Director Robert Hight, and PG&E did nothing and made excuses while Butte Creek became a graveyard littered with the carcasses of 12,000 to 15,000 salmon. Last year an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 spring-run chinook died because of the same warm, low water conditions that spurred the outbreak of disease.


Although the sheer number of fish lost in the Klamath fish kill was more, the gravity of the Butte Creek disaster is even worse, since the vast majority of the creek's threatened spring chinooks were lost. This year's fish kill will be a severe set back to the recovery of this listed species, since the Butte Creek spring run is the most robust of its kind in the Central Valley and California.


Tens of millions of dollars have been spent to restore spring chinook in Butte Creek. Federal and state agencies, environmentalists, anglers and landowners on the creek have spent lots of time and money to take down dams and other barriers to fish passage on the creek. It is tragic that PG&E and DFG let these fish die after all of the incredibly successful restoration efforts in the Butte Basin.


To dump sediment onto the spawning beds of the survivors of the Butte Creek environmental disaster is outrageous. To plead ignorance of the latest spill is beyond contempt. 


For more information, contact Friends of Butte Creek on the web at www.buttecreek.org. You can sign their online petition to the California Resources Secretary calling for the restoration of flows in Butte Creek.


Daniel Bacher is an outdoor writer/alternative journalist/satirical songwriter from Sacramento California. He is also a long-time peace, social justice and environmental activist. Email: danielbacher@hotmail.com


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