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Another Big Salmon Kill

by DAN BACHER

For the second year in a row, thousands of threatened spring-run chinook salmon have perished in an outbreak of disease spurred by warm water conditions on Butte Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River that arises in the Sierra Nevada west of Chico.

Allen Harthorn of Friends of Butte Creek and other fishery restoration activists are accusing the Department of Fish and Game and Pacific Gas and Electric Company of failing to do anything to save the fish, even though 5,000 to 7,000 fish died under similar conditions last year. The spring chinook salmon is a listed species under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts.

The recent fish kill took place between mid-July and the end of August when an estimated 15,000 salmon encountered lethally warm water conditions on Butte Creek. The latest fish kill was preceded by a smaller one around May 11, when PG&E’s Centerville Flume failed and dumped massive amounts of sediment into the creek, resulting in the premature deaths of hundreds of salmon.

“The federal and state governments and local water districts spent around $25,000,000 over 10 years to remove dams and other barriers so that the fish could get upriver to spawn,” said Harthorn. “That’s approximately $300 per salmon. If you figure that last year we lost 7,000 fish and this year we lost another 8,000 salmon, that’s $4-1/2 million wasted in two fish kills.”

He added, “If I was a farmer in the Butte Basin, I’d be very upset that all this money was spent so the fish can get upriver to die prematurely.”

The fish started dying in July when water diverted by PG&E from Round Valley Reservoir hit 68 degrees, increasing to approximately 70 degrees by the time that it came out of DeSabla Powerhouse and around 75 degrees by the time it reached the big pool in front of Harthorn’s property in Butte Creek Canyon.

The fish kill accelerated beginning August 11 as warm water temperatures spurred the outbreak of columnaris (bacterial gill disease) and ich protozoa in the salmon. By the end of August, thousands of salmon littered the bottom of Butte Creek.

“Many pools now are virtual graveyards with flesh and bones scattered every where,” said Harthorn. “What was a spectacular run has been decimated. All of the parties with authority – the DFG, PG&E and National Marine Fisheries Service – have sat on their hands and sacrificed these fish.”

The problem is that in the section of the creek where the most fish died, from Centerville Dam to DeSabla Powerhouse, the water is diverted for power generation. PG&E uses approximately 30 cfs of upper Butte Creek water and 50 cfs of Feather River water for electricity, bypassing the majority of fish.

As a solution to the fish kills, Harthorn suggest putting all of the natural flows – 75 cfs or more – in this stretch during July, August and September and utilizing the water from the West Branch of the Feather River for power generation.

Paul Ward, DFG fishery biologist, confirmed that “a good component” of the Butte Creek run died before spawning. The preliminary estimate of the 2003 pre-spawning snorkel survey of fish still alive in the river from Quartz Bowl to the Parrot-Phelan Diversion Dam is 4398 salmon.

“To date, we estimate that over 5,000 salmon (5472) have died before spawning, but our final count won’t be available until mid October when we do our spawning carcass survey,” he stated.

Couldn’t something have been done to stop the premature deaths of these fish, since they are listed as a threatened species?

“It does not appear so,” said Ward. “Maybe we can work with PG&E to better manage the water from the West Branch so cooler water can be sent down the river.”

He characterized the problem with Butte Creek as too many fish being crowded into too little habitat. “Even after the fish kill, there are probably more fish than there is available spawning gravel,” he stated. “The reach above Centerville has only 15 percent of the available habitat, although it has good holding water. Over 85 percent of the habitat is below Centerville.”

Lisa Randle, spokesperson for Pacific Gas & Electric, said the utility was operating their hydroelectric facilities with the cooperation of DFG and other fishery agencies when the fish kill took place.

“We continue to operate as directed by our FERC license and maintain communication with and work with the California Resources Agency regarding fish flow releases,” she stated. “We are open to considering any changes that are beneficial to the well being of the salmon.”

However, Harthorn said the DFG and PG&E are “just making excuses for doing nothing.”

“There would be no problem with fish spawning on top of one another if the low flow section of Butte Creek had 75 cfs or more,” he explained. “By increasing flows, they would increase the habitat. Right now the fish are very crowded because there is not much water for them. If that’s all of the water that the DFG can get from PG&E, we have to figure out something we can do to stop these kills from occurring.”

Harthorn also estimated the DFG’s preliminary estimate of 5472 dead fish to be very conservative, considering that only half of the carcasses are ever counted. “We’re saying that 8,000 fish, maybe more, died before spawning,” he added.

Harthorn is also proposing that once 10,000 fish are estimated to have entered the creek, that Butte Creek be reopened to fishing for recreational anglers for one month.

Craig Bell, representing the Salmonid Restoration Federation and Northern California Association of River Guides, addressed the issue of the fish kill during the public comment section of the California Fish and Game Commission meeting in Santa Rosa on August 28.

“This is the second time that I’ve had to bring a fish kill on Butte Creek to the Commission’s attention,” said Bell. “PG&E is taking a state and federally listed species without an incidental take permit. It’s time for the DFG to take a more aggressive stance in protecting spring-run chinooks.”

Harthorn is urging everybody concerned about stopping future fish kills to send their comments to Robert C. Hight, Director, Department of Fish and Game, 1416 Ninth Street, Sacramento, CA. 95814, and Michael Aceituno, National Marine Fisheries Service, 680 Capitol Mall Suite 8-300, Sacramento, CA. 95814-4708.

You can also sign the petition to Mary D. Nichols, California Resources Secretary, requesting the restoration of full flows to Butte Creek at www.buttecreek.org

DAN BACHER can be reached at: danielbacher@hotmail.com

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Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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