by Leslie Layton
posted Aug. 12
This story was updated at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 12 with an additional response from Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. (PG&E).
The breach in PG&E-operated Butte Canal that has turned Butte Creek into orange sludge will turn out to be the death knell for many salmon and some members of other species, says fisheries expert Allen Harthorn.
Harthorn, founder of the advocacy organization Friends of Butte Creek, warns the environmental disaster triggered by the Aug. 10 breach is a threat to what was the state’s best chance to save spring-run Chinook salmon. Butte Creek, a 93-mile tributary of the Sacramento River, is considered critical to the spring run’s survival.
“This was the best run of spring-run salmon in the entire state,” Harthorn said today, “although it was in need of a lot of restoration. This event is essentially an underwater Camp Fire — there’s no fire, but it’s killing everything in its path.”
The breach occurred in a PG&E canal that carries water from upper Butte Creek to the De Sabla Powerhouse. In an email this evening, PG&E said the breach occurred “between the Forks of Butte Creek and Butte Creek Head Dam in the gunite near the bottom of the canal.” (Gunite is the thin coating used in canal construction.)
PG&E said it discovered the breach the morning of Aug. 10 and “immediately took action to stop water flows in the canal by opening side spill gates upstream of the breach.
“PG&E crews used sheeting and sandbags at the breach to effectively stop residual water from flowing out the breach,” says the statement from PG&E’s Karly Hernandez.
“As the turbid water flowed downstream, at the DeSabla Powerhouse, additional clear water was added to the creek and diluted the turbidity,” the statement says. “PG&E is closely monitoring the turbidity, which is continuing to decrease.”
Diversions downstream to farmlands have reportedly been shut off.
A Friends of Butte Creek statement, emailed today under the title, “Death Blow to Butte Creek,” said that “after more than 24 hours Butte Creek is still not clearing up.”
“Canyon folks have compared it to the Ganges River,” the bulletin says.
State and federal agencies have been called in to work on the problem, which Harthorn says will be tough to solve; it’s been compounded by the need to divert water from the damaged canal.
“Not only do we have the failure of the canal, but we also have all of these release valves dumping water down bare hillsides and into Butte Creek,” he said. “You can’t get any [heavy] equipment down there. It’s difficult to access.”
But PG&E’s statement this evening says: “Side gates remain open. The water is directed into spill channels so the diverted water should not be producing additional sediment.”
At his property in Helltown in Butte Creek Canyon, Harthorn watched the evening of Aug. 10 as the sediment “started to drift in.”
“By 7 o’clock there was zero visibility and the creek was orange,” Harthorn said. “When I saw the color and intensity, the speed at which it overwhelmed the [creek] pool, I could tell it was a very serious incident.
“As of today, it’s an absolute catastrophe, and may very well sterilize Butte Creek if they don’t find a way to solve this problem immediately.”
PG&E says that “emergency repairs” to the breach should be completed in several days.
Harthorn watched a deer make its way to the creek after the water had turned turbid, and then stand gazing at the creek afraid to take a drink. He said that not only are salmon in danger, but so are Pikeminnow, trout, Hardhead, Riffle sculpin and other species.
“Its animals that are affected, although secondary impacts to humans will be significant,” Harthorn predicted. “There could be arsenic in this water and there’s probably asbestos. We just don’t know until the testing is done. At the very least people should stay out of the water. Animals don’t want to drink it.”
Although diversions to ag lands have been shut off, Harthorn wonders whether the sediment will leak into the groundwater.
Spring run Chinook are a threatened species under both the state and federal endangered species acts. Butte Creek is one of only three tributaries that still support a self-sustaining population of Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon, says CalFish, a data monitoring program.
Harthorn, who has been working on salmon habitat for 28 years, says this year’s run was the lowest run he’d seen in 26 years, and about 500 salmon are at stake. The spring run that is in the ocean right now should return to the creek next year and “help rebuild the population,” Harthorn said.
“But the bottom line is that three years from now, we may not have any fish come back again [if] there’s no adult spawning population this year that’s going to survive. Those that survive are going to be greatly weakened; their eggs may be ruined. We’ve never had to deal with anything like this before.”
At today’s Chico Certified Farmers’ Market, at the stand where he sells his ranch produce, alarmed shoppers streaming by paused to ask Harthorn about the seriousness of the problem.
Ann Polivka, a Paradise native, was one of the readers contacting ChicoSol when she saw the eerie orange as she crossed Butte Creek on Highway 99 in her car.
“I looked down and all of a sudden it was bright orange,” Polivka said of the creek. “I was really shocked. I’d never seen it that color.”
Harthorn blames PG&E for what he says is poor maintenance of its facilities. “They have failed to maintain [equipment], failed to monitor. This upper Butte Canal has fallen apart so many times I’ve lost track.”
The Friends of Butte Creek bulletin says it is “deeply saddened that PG&E has been allowed to continue operating this system that has had so many failures … Their stalling techniques on relicensing the DeSabla-Centerville project are deplorable. They are not fit to operate this anymore.”
Friends of Butte Creek said it is urging “canyon residents to put out clean water for the creatures” and will provide templates for protest letters.
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.