Federal Government Intervenes in Butte Creek Salmon Disaster

by Dan Bacher

Dissident Voice

October 7, 2003


The worst ever die off of threatened spring-run chinooks on Butte Creek has prompted a federal government agency, NOAA Fisheries, to press for a series of actions to stop this from happening again in 2004. Unfortunately, the government intervention was taken too late for this year’s run.


The banks of Butte Creek, the most vibrant remaining spring chinook fishery in California, have been littered since July with thousands of carcasses of salmon that died before they were able to spawn. In a beautiful canyon where anglers and environmentalists should be celebrating the return of a huge run, the survivors of the fish kill are now spawning.


In a disaster much worse than even the Klamath fish kill of 2002, the federal government, fishery activists and DFG agree that the majority of wild spring-run chinooks perished before spawning, although they disagree on the exact numbers. The fish died from the same two diseases - Columnaris (bacterial gill disease) and Ich - that killed spring chinooks on Butte Creek and fall chinooks on the Klamath River last year.


Michael E. Aceituno, Supervisor of Sacramento Area Office of NOAA Fisheries, estimated the pre-spawning mortality to be “80 to 90 percent of the adult escapement” in a letter to Magalie R. Salas, Office of the Secretary, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.


Emphasizing the seriousness of the situation, Aceituno said, “The final pre-spawning mortality estimate is likely to represent a significant proportion of the entire population of the Central Valley spring-run Chinook Salmon Evolutionarily Significant Unit (ESU).”


In his letter, he requested FERC to initiate formal section 7 (a)(2) consultation on these effects. Formal consultation is necessary any time a federal action “may affect” species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Up to this point, consultation has been done on an informal basis.


“We believe that PG&E must take immediate steps if it is to avoid or minimize any future episodes of high pre-spawning mortality levels of Central Valley spring-run chinook salmon in Butte Creek,” he stated.


He strongly urged FERC to direct PG&E to adopt 11 specific measures, most regarding monitoring water temperatures and studies on how to manage the hydroelectric plants best for salmon and steelhead.

NOAA wants PG&E to analyze fish passage at Quartz Bowl and beyond (Centerville Head Dam) immediately. It has also asked PG&E to do a risk assessment on the flumes which regularly dump tons of sediment into the creek.


The letter also recommended convening an upper Butte Creek science workshop to review the status of existing information, identify relevant science/study needs and make preliminary recommendations for operation alternatives and facilities modifications.


Paul Ward, DFG fishery biologist, dismissed the gravity of the fish kill and estimates the pre-spawn mortality to be 11,200 fish and the live fish spawning now to be 4,400.


“The 4400 fish that are now spawning is still more than over half of the combined spring-run chinook populations of the other two tributaries, Mill and Deer Creek,” said Ward. “The historic average of Butte Creek runs from 1967 to 1991 was 360 fish, with a high of 1300 fish. In contrast, the runs averaged 6,000 to 8,000 salmon over the past 8 years.”


Responding to the NOAA letter, Ward said, “There is nothing requested in the letter that is terribly different from what PG&E and DFG are already doing, other than NOAA is requesting formal, rather than informal, consultation. There doesn’t appear to be a lot that we could have done differently during the fish kill this year. The Columnaris and Ich protozoa outbreak was caused by crowded, warm water conditions.


However, Allen Harthorn, board member of Friends of Butte Creek and fishing guide, emphasized that the fish kill shouldn’t be taken lightly, since spring run chinook are a listed species under the Endangered Species Act. Hawthorn estimates that 12-15,000 fish died this summer before spawning.


“If we had bald eagles, whales, or even fairy shrimp dying like this, people would be up in arms about the deaths of listed species,” said Harthorn. “There is simply no precedent for a listed species die off of this magnitude.”


He also said that DFG and PG&E claims that the fish kill was caused by too many fish in the creek is “ridiculous.”


“The number of fish spawning in the creek this year has been greatly reduced from 1998,” he stated. “I’ve been documenting salmon spawning in the creek each year. Whereas there were 20 redds (nests) below my house in Butte Creek Canyon in 1998, today there are only 2 redds.”


Friends of Butte Creek applauded the federal intervention.  “After this year’s fish kill, NOAA Fisheries has stepped up to the plate and asked for immediate action,” said Harthorn. “This is a huge step forward in getting the ass-backward management of Butte Creek straightened out.”


In addition, the Friends have asked FERC to immediately increase the flow to 80 cfs and maintain the entire flow of Butte Creek and the West Branch Feather River water (total 125 cfs) in the bypass reach all summer.

“This would mean shutting down the Centerville Powerhouse all summer,” said Hawthorn. “This would provide the best refugia from the summer heat in the highest reaches, which is the only logical, biological thing to do.”


Harthorn noted that the electricity lost by shutting down Centerville Powerhouse in the summer would be  “a drop in the bucket,” 2.3 megawatts, while saving the largest spring chinook run in California. This compares to the 18 megawatts provided by Desabla Powerhouse and the 35 megawatts provided by the Battle Creek hydroelectric facilities.


“If PG&E increased the flow to 125 cfs, they would not only provide better conditions for spring -run chinooks, but support much healthier steelhead runs and probably support a winter run of chinooks,” he added. “When you increase the flows, you increase the available habitat.”


PG&E did not return my phone call, but Lisa Randle, PG&E spokesperson, in an article in the Chico Enterprise Record on October 2, was quoted as saying, “More data is needed to make decisions. All the agencies and PG&E will be working toward that.”


Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on passage and habitat improvements in the Butte Creek watershed, so this year’s fish kill is a gigantic tragedy. Nobody knows yet how successful the spawn of the remaining fish - stressed in the warm water - will be. All of the hard work and money that people have put into the creek’s restoration is being lost, due to inaction by the Department of Fish and Game and PG&E. I applaud the intervention by NOAA Fisheries.


Please write letters of support to FERC for the NOAA recommendations. Write Magalie R. Salas, Office of the Secretary, Docket Room, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 888 First Street, N.E., Room 1A, East, Washington, D.C. 20002.


Also, visit the Friends of Butte Creek  website and sign the petition calling for the full restoration of the creek at www.buttecreek.org. For more information, call Allen Harthorn, (530) 893-0360.


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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