PG&E Put on Notice to Protect Threatened Spring-Run Chinook Salmon

Organizations say Butte Creek hydroelectric operation needs second look


Trent Orr, Earthjustice 510-550-6700 or 415-665-2185


Allen Harthorn, Friends of Butte Creek 530-228-5342


John Beuttler, CSPA 510-526-4049


Zeke Grader, PCFFA 415-561-5080

Conservation and fishing groups have launched a legal effort to protect the threatened Central Valley spring-run chinook salmon population that spawns in Butte Creek, one of state’s last, and most vibrant, populations of spring-run chinook.

The coalition filed a Petition for Review in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to compel the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service (also known as NOAA-Fisheries) regarding the effects of a small PG&E hydroelectric project on the protected salmon. The conservation lawsuit also puts PG&E on notice that any fish kills this summer caused by diverting Butte Creek will prompt legal action for illegal killing of a listed species. FERC has authority over PG&E’s license to generate electricity using Butte Creek waters. The National Marine Fisheries Service is the federal agency charged with maintaining healthy salmon runs, among other duties.

Spring-run chinook salmon are so named because they migrate as adults from the ocean to their birth streams during the spring when water flows are high, allowing them access to higher elevation pools where they wait out the summer to lay their eggs in the fall. Spring run can only survive in creeks and streams fed by cold snowmelt or cold springs in order to withstand high summer temperatures. This severely limits the remaining stream and creek habitat still suitable for spring run survival. Butte Creek has the biggest remaining wild spring-run chinook salmon population. The species is believed to have gone extinct in the southern portion of its range in the San Joaquin River system. Besides Butte Creek, they cling to survival in two other major Sacramento River tributaries.

Allen Harthorn of Friends of Butte Creek said, “Enormous efforts were made to bring the spring-run chinook back from the brink of extinction, including the removal of several dams on lower Butte Creek. It’s time for FERC to consult formally with the NOAA-Fisheries to reassess the impacts of the DeSabla-Centerville hydroelectric project.”

The spring-run chinook was listed as ‘threatened’ under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1999. The species suffered huge die-offs due to low flows and warm water temperatures in Butte Creek during 2002 and 2003. Pre-spawning fatalities jumped from 20 percent of the population in 2002 to as much as 90 percent in 2003.

During the spring, summer, and early fall months, adult spring-run Chinook occupy approximately ten miles of holding and spawning habitat in Butte Creek. Fish habitat conditions in this section of Butte Creek, including water flow and temperature, are controlled by operation of the DeSalba-Centerville hydroelectric project. PG&E operates the project under licensing authority of FERC. Because the species was listed as threatened in 1999, conservation and fishing groups believe the permitting agency, FERC, should consult with NMFS and issue new operation guidelines to PG&E that will protect the salmon.

A major obstacle to fish restoration is Centerville Head Dam, located 300 yards below De Sabla Forebay, where salmon are almost completely blocked from reaching the creek’s upper watershed. PG&E has made no mitigations for these losses.

“While it is true that a 30-year license was issued to operate this small hydroelectric project, new science and a federal species listing indicates that changes may be needed to protect the spring-run chinook,” said Trent Orr, an attorney from Earthjustice who is representing the coalition in court. “The time has come for government biologists to take a hard look at this project and determine what can be done to avert more tragic fish kills to promote the recovery of the spring-run.”

John Beuttler of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance said, “Our once great spring-run salmon have been virtually eliminated from the Sacramento River and now survive primarily by hanging on in Butte Creek, with much smaller populations in two other tributaries. The little that is left of this highly prized salmon is of great importance to anglers and Native Americans as it represents a unique element of our natural heritage that can be turned back from extinction and fostered to a healthy, sustainable population in Central Valley rivers and streams.”

“The spring-run chinook salmon of the Butte Creek represent one of the last intact runs of this magnificent fish,” said Zeke Grader of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “Federal agencies have got to reconsider any operating permits that could be modified to improve the health of this family of salmon – once the largest stock of Chinook salmon in the Central Valley.”

The coalition of groups involved in the petition includes: California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Friends of Butte Creek, Friends of the River, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and Sacramento River Preservation Trust.

See a map of Butte Creek and the PG&E facilities here


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