Earlier this month, American Whitewater’s California Stewardship Director Dave Steindorf testified before the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) in support of the agency’s water quality certification for the DeSabla/Centerville hydropower project on Butte Creek and the West Branch Feather. The certification calls for decommissioning the Centerville Powerhouse and flume on Butte Creek, which will benefit salmon runs.
The 100-year-old Centerville powerhouse has been struggling to stay in operation for well over a decade, and has not created a single electron in over four years. The powerhouse produced a relatively small amount of power when it was in operation, and is not capable of providing the grid regulating benefits that other larger hydro facilities do. Based on its own economics, it would not be worth it for PG&E to spend an estimated $25 million rebuilding the powerhouse.
While Butte Creek is small, it plays a critical role in restoring salmon populations to California. Historically, spring salmon runs came in from the ocean and made their way up numerous rivers and streams. There, they found water that was cold enough to allow them to survive the summer and spawn in the fall. Large dams now block the way on most rivers in the state.
Fortunately, Butte Creek is small enough that it did not fall prey to large dam projects. And where most tributaries to the Sacramento River have little to no flow in the late summer months, Butte Creek’s flows that are high enough to sustain salmon populations through the summer. Under the DeSabla/Centerville hydroelectric project, water is diverted from the West Branch Feather River over to Butte Creek, which roughly doubles its summertime flows.
Additionally, Butte Creek was the focus of restoration efforts in the late 1990s, when a number of small irrigation dams were removed and others were fitted with fish ladders. These improvements allowed the returning salmon populations to rebound from just a few hundred annually to over 10,000. Today, Butte Creek is the salmon restoration success story in a state that has little to cheer about when it comes to our overall dwindling salmon populations.
Decommissioning the Centerville Powerhouse will return approximately 100 cfs to the reach of Butte Creek where most returning salmon spend the summer, which will improve conditions even further.
While American Whitewater supports the SWRCB’s decision to decommission the Centerville powerhouse and flume, we also recognize that this hydroelectric project has been part of this community for well over 100 years. The powerhouse is an important access site for very popular whitewater runs on Butte Creek and the Centerville flume is an important recreational access way.
In addition to supporting the water quality certification at the hearing earlier this month, Steindorf urged PG&E should begin to develop a plan for decommissioning this project that meets the entire community’s interests. American Whitewater will be working in the coming months to initiate dialogue with PG&E, resource agencies, and interested community members to begin the development of this decommissioning plan. American Whitewater began working on this relicensing back in 2003, and it is time to see this project moving to final resolution.