Threatened Salmon a Concern as PG&E Plans to Pull Plug on Butte Creek Hydro Project

DeSabla >> Operating the hydroelectric plants on Butte Creek just isn’t worth it to PG&E anymore, and that’s a potential threat to a rare strain of salmon.

The electric company is going to withdraw its application for a license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission later this month, said PG&E corporate relations representative Paul Moreno.

“We looked at this project very carefully. The energy landscape in California is changing,” he said. “There is more renewable power available in the market at lower prices. The costs to operate the facility are increasing with new regulations, and demand for our power is changing as more customers are going solar.”

With PG&E dropping the license, some fear the population of threatened spring-run chinook salmon in Butte Creek will die.

Water flows into Butte Creek from PG&E’s De Sabla Powerhouse in this aerial photo from July 2015. The utility isn’t planning to renew its federal power generation license for the project, saying it’s no longer economical. (Dan Reidel — Enterprise-Record file photo)

The license with FERC includes a project that runs from Round Valley Reservoir (Snag Lake) off Humbug Road in far northeastern Butte County, to the Centerville Powerhouse in Butte Creek Canyon, plus everything in between.

That encompasses Philbrook Reservoir and Philbrook Creek in Plumas National Forest; the Hendricks Diversion Dam and Hendricks Canal, which takes water from the West Branch of the Feather River at Stirling City and carries it to the Toadtown Powerhouse and then to DeSabla Lake north of Magalia; and the DeSabla Powerhouse itself, and both upper and lower Centerville canals.

PG&E expects the process to take between 5 and 10 years.

Moreno said the utility encourages the federal regulators to begin what is called an “orphan project” process, which would allow a qualified third party to license the hydroelectric facilities.

Another option for FERC is to order PG&E to create a decommissioning plan, which would eventually take the powerhouses out of service.


Butte Creek has the largest population of wild spring-run chinook salmon in California.

In the summer months the creek water warms and PG&E sends cool water from the Philbrook Reservoir and Snag Lake into Butte Creek via the series of canals between the bodies of water. The water allows the salmon to survive as they hold in deep pools before spawning.

Sending that water is a requirement of the license to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

Although Moreno said any new license will also have to comply with the 1973 animal protection law, Allen Harthorn worries a new owner will negotiate a new license that would put the fish in danger.

“All the achievements, environmental and economical are all back on the table,” he said. “We’re a little bit upset.”

As the executive director of the all-volunteer Friends of Butte Creek, Harthorn has worked with PG&E and FERC to come to an agreement on the current license.

He’s not optimistic that the four different government agencies with oversight on the water, fish, land and regulations along the entire project will make a new owner abide by the same rules as PG&E.

“We’ve spent the last 12 years doing the licensing process with PG&E and other state agencies,” he said. “All that work was for nothing.”

Harthorn also fears a buyer won’t be found, which would mean the entire project would be decommissioned.

Without working hydroelectric generation, the energy regulations would not apply and water wouldn’t be released into the creek at all.

Although Butte Creek salmon are unique in that they can live in warmer water than other chinook, water temperatures in the 70s can kill the fish. Without the cold water releases the fish will likely die.

Harthorn hopes a local environmentally-conscious owner will take over and continue to operate the DeSabla and Toadtown powerhouses while considering modifications to the Centerville Dam and the Butte Head Dam.


Until the process is complete, PG&E will continue to operate the DeSabla Powerhouse, the other hydroelectric plants and the canals under the conditions of the license in place.

The impacts of the utility not running the powerhouses won’t be fully known for up 5 to 10 years, when either new owner takes over, or the powerhouses are shut down.

“During this process there will be opportunity for public input and resource agencies reports,” Moreno said.

Although it’s up to FERC to decide where and when that input will take place, in Moreno’s experience, those meetings are held in communities near the projects.

Article by: Dan Reidel
Published: February 2, 2017 by Chico Enterprise-Record
Read original here.