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A Lucky Break for Butte Creek Salmon

Butte Creek, during the Chinook spring-run in 2014.

Butte Creek, during the Chinook spring-run in 2014.

Terrence Neal / Earthjustice

This year, Earthjustice and California’s Butte Creek received a major assist from an unexpected source. Thanks to Pacific Gas & Electric’s Centerville Powerhouse—which when functioning diverts water from the creek—breaking, the creek is receiving maximum water flows for the first time in decades. The full flows are providing clean, cool water, which will greatly help to reduce stress and mortality of salmon as they travel home to spawn.

Butte Creek is one of the last strongholds for spring-run Chinook salmon in California’s Central Valley. The Chinook were historically the most abundant salmon species in the region, but now only exist in five creeks, with Butte Creek supporting the largest run.

Despite its relatively large salmon population, Butte Creek is plagued with problems. Through its system of dams, canals, reservoirs and powerhouses, PG&E has completely altered the hydrology of the creek so that the water level and temperature of critical salmon habitat are controlled by the company. Most years, PG&E removes over 60 percent of the creek’s water, which has resulted in multiple years of massive salmon die-offs.

The full-flowing Butte Creek, during the Chinook spring-run in 2014.
The full-flowing Butte Creek, during the Chinook spring-run in 2014.
Terrence Neal / Earthjustice

For the past 10 years, Earthjustice has been working with the Friends of Butte Creek, the California Sports Fishing Alliance and other groups to protect the creek and the salmon that call it home. The main goal of our work has been to increase water flows on Butte Creek, especially during drought when salmon are more susceptible to die-offs due to higher water temperatures and several other factors. Fortunately for me, I had the opportunity to travel to the full flowing Butte Creek with Earthjustice’s California regional office recently. It was a great experience to get out of the office and experience firsthand the precious ecosystems we work tirelessly to protect.

It gives you a different perspective and magnified appreciation of the resilient salmon when you get to swim side-by-side with them. The salmon’s silvery bodies, roughly two to three feet long, embodied both strength and grace as they seemingly moved in perfect harmony with one another and the flow of the creek.

Spring-run Chinook in Butte Creek.
Spring-run Chinook in Butte Creek.
Terrence Neal / Earthjustice

It was intriguing to watch the large group of salmon as they rested in one of the deeper pools of the creek to recharge for the final stretch of their journey home. They seemed to be reuniting with old friends, catching up on the latest fish gossip, and sharing tales of their journeys to seas far, far way. And occasionally, a fish would leap out of the water, flailing its silvery body in the air, as if to show off its exceptional athleticism or to sort of say, “I’ve still got it.”

America’s wild lands and wildlife are truly spectacular, but they need protecting more than ever.

While it is still possible for salmon to complete their journey home on Butte Creek, on most West Coast rivers and creeks this is not the case. Every year, thousands of salmon swim for countless miles only to find the road home blocked with a giant slab of concrete or drained dry due to a number of factors, including water grabs by Big Ag, hydro projects and a warming planet.

Because, to salmon, there is truly no place like home; the tenacious fish fight to conquer the towering dams blocking their path—but to no avail. They die of exhaustion, losing the opportunity to reproduce and pass on their genes to the next generation.

Thankfully, these endangered fish have a good lawyer. Since 1989, Earthjustice has been committed to saving West Coast salmon from extinction. We have won many victories for the salmon, and we plan to keep fighting so that there’s a home for salmon to return to and a clear path to get there.

Tags:  salmon, water

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unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.