In 2012, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) touted its efforts to protect threatened Chinook salmon in Butte Creek, near the utility’s hydropower facility 90 miles north of Sacramento. In 2014, it trumpeted efforts to help the fish cope with the ongoing drought.
Last week, PG&E killed more than 10% of them when workers temporarily shut down a canal―to repair its lining―that feeds cold water to the creek, according to Associated Press. The utility said it couldn’t be helped.
The canal was closed on May 29 to fix leaks and line 500 feet of it. “I can tell you that … crews worked every day to get that back in place,” PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno told AP. The canal carries cold water from a utility reservoir to the hydroelectric plant and in the process enhances one of the few habitats remaining for a species dancing on the edge of extinction in California.
Earthjustice says PG&E has completely altered the hydrology of the creek, removed more than 60% of its water most years and jacked around with its temperature. The environmental law group blames the company for massive salmon die-offs in 2002 and 2003.
Last year, 95% of the state’s Chinook salmon population disappeared. The rivers are too warm and too shallow. The melting snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas that used to feed the chilled rivers and streams is mostly gone. It’s estimated that a couple centuries ago 2 million Chinook spawned in the Central Valley.
Butte Creek is (was) home to the biggest of three remaining wild populations of adult salmon in the Central Valley―2,000 strong. Two hundred and seventy-seven died when the cold water was shut off.
Warmer water quickly spreads deadly pathogens that attack salmon gills and drowned them. The Chico Enterprise-Record said that 11,000 of 17,000 fish died in 2003 during a heat spike.
In 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that while salmon were scarce all around the state, they were plentiful in Butte Creek. Ten thousand were counted, compared to just 14 in 1987. Allen Harthorn, executive director of Friends of Butte Creek, was overwhelmed. “It's the only place that gives me hope,” he said.
In 2012, writing in its own publication about efforts to count salmon in Butte Creek, PG&E noted a warning from Clint Garmon, director of California’s Department of Fish and Game (now Fish and Wildlife):
“There’s a lot of interest here in Butte Creek because these fish are listed under the Endangered Species Act. There’s lots of different stakeholders that have interest in seeing these fish do well, and PG&E is as big a part of that as all the other stakeholders involved.”